Woman of the Year

Main Gate, Magazine of the American University of Beirut
Spring Vol I, No. 3

Woman of the Year

Alumnus Mary Najarian (RN ’55) has spent much of the last twenty
years working day and night to improve medical care in Armenia.
Attending a gala in her honor, Lynn Mahoney finds in the woman an
inspiring mix of courage, humility, and dedication.

There are tributes, and then there are tributes.
So I discovered in Los Angeles the evening of February 2, 2004. It
happened to be Superbowl Sunday, a tough night in the United States
to draw a crowd to any event without the lure of a wide screen
television broadcast of the game. But as I realized while watching
the large crowd arrive to recognize her twenty years of humanitarian
service in Armenia, Mary Najarian is no ordinary woman.
Some 500 hundred friends and members of family filled the George
Deukmejian Ballroom at the Ararat Home in Los Angeles. Each table was
lavishly spread with mezzeh and flowers, as well as with a charming
selection of Armenian folk dolls and prayer beads donated by
Najarian. As we all sat down for dinner, the heartfelt laudatory
speeches began. Each speaker commented on how Najarian had touched
the lives of so many people in Armenia, as well as their own – a
profound tribute to a woman who makes no fuss about her vital work
and has no expectations of recognition.
Mary Najarian’s humanitarian activities in Armenia began in 1984,
while the country was still under the heavy yoke of the former Soviet
Union and entry was close to impossible for foreigners. Just one year
after that visit, she and her husband, Vartkes Najarian (MD ’57)
founded Medical Outreach for Armenians, which since then has raised,
donated, and transported over 46 million dollars worth of medical and
surgical supplies to Armenia and Karabagh.
Najarian’s commitment to improving medical care in Armenia has been
extraordinary, and the extent of it was personally relayed during the
dinner by her friends and family, particularly by her beautiful
daughter Maro Yacoubian, who totally shares her mother’s dedication.
She told of countless late nights, phone calls to Armenia at all
hours, and the hard work of preparing the shipments of medical
supplies. In fact, Maro noted, her parents’ labor of love consumed so
much of their time that it was not until January 2004 that they took
their first vacation ever – a cruise around the Caribbean.
Commenting on the tributes, Najarian observed with characteristic
understatement, `It makes you feel good…it’s so encouraging to know
people appreciate what you have done. That I am a woman and was able
to accomplish as much as I have makes a difference, too. You know,
Armenia is a man’s world, and it is hard for women to open doors.’
Mary and Vartkes Najarian have taken a decidedly hands-on approach to
medical outreach. In 1985, Vartkes himself carried the first
arthroscopic set to Armenia and taught the local physicians knee
surgery using the latest medical equipment. Mary, on her part,
personally supervised the renovation of an operating room and trained
nurses in the aseptic technique.
`My nursing education at AUB was a huge help in my relief efforts. As
a nurse, I worked side by side with my husband. I would check
supplies while in the field and find out what is needed,’ she said,
reflecting on her education. `The training at AUB was and is still
superior to anything I have seen, especially in surgical nursing.’
It was during the first trips to Armenia that she saw just how far
behind the hospitals were on modern surgical techniques. `It was like
being in the Middle Ages,’ she recalled. `It took Vartkes and me
three to four weeks to get the doctors trained in aseptic techniques –
before that they didn’t even wear facemasks or scrub for surgery.’
The war in Karabagh brought new challenges for the Najarians. Medical
Outreach for Armenia, the non-profit organization they founded to
improve healthcare in Armenia, continued sending medical supplies
from Los Angeles when the war started, but as the number of
casualties rose, they simply had to go to Armenia to help. `Vartkes
and I traveled to the war zone and worked there. This was the hardest
challenge of all.’
Once in Karabagh, they literally worked in the trenches, as wounded
soldiers were brought in from the battlefield. `There were no
hospitals in the war zone. We operated in tunnels with flashlights
that would only work for 20 minutes and Vartkes would be performing
surgery on the floor.’ She tells how saddening it was to see these
young men, many of them only 18 or 19 years old, suffer. `They were
kids and would usually stay with us for a week recovering. Later,
they would return with their parents to thank us – that, in itself, was
payment enough for our hard work.’
Throughout those difficult war years, while continuing to return to
Armenia to assist with surgeries, the Najarians also kept sending
cartloads of medical supplies gathered from top pharmaceutical and
surgical equipment companies – in one year alone they shipped 50
containers to Karabagh. `The Armenian medical community was just
astounded – they had never seen so many new medications in such
quantities before,’ she exclaimed.
Considering her many travels to Armenia, Najarian’s dedication is
obvious. She has been to Armenia 46 times and Karabagh 22 times – at
the rate of two or three times a year, especially during the war for
stays of two to six weeks.
One of her greatest accomplishments, which she modestly mentions, is
her work at the Veterans Hospital in Yerevan. `The conditions were
unbelievably bad. There were eight to ten patients to a room, with
the beds all connected. There was no running water except for two
hours a day. The toilets were horrible – there was one toilet for every
50 patients and you could not get in and out without carrying traces
of fecal matter.’ Medical Outreach for Armenians renovated seven
floors in the hospital, in addition to three annex floors. Bathrooms
were constructed as well with one for each ward of five patients
along with more bedrooms for patients. Operating rooms were
modernized with equipment from the US.

But there is still much work to be done, says Najarian. `While the
Veterans Hospital has improved tremendously and can now provide
proper medical care for the military and their families, it is not
available to the poor and the needy. Many patients go to the hospital
to die because that is all they can afford to do,’ she explains.
`This causes me much pain.’
Not surprisingly, the Najarians are determined to find a way to fix
this problematic situation, much as they did with renovating the
Veterans Hospital. `We are planning to establish a hospital, equipped
with foreign doctors working on a volunteer basis to provide free
health care for those who need it.’ What they are lacking, however,
is the facility. `I am determined to insist in the Armenian
newspapers that the government must provide us with a building. I
feel I have not accomplished anything until the public has free
access to medical care.’
Until then, the Najarians will continue with letters to the
government and rallying the support of the American medical community
to establish the hospital. And the shipments of medical supplies will
go on. `We have been lucky in getting out a container every two to
three weeks. And we can support a hospital, if given the chance.’

Najarian also shared memories of her student days: `The University
was very prestigious. To say you were an AUB student was something
big.’ She arrived at AUB with three very close friends from the
American School in Aleppo, Syria – Angie Bahuth, Adrin Beheler, and
Knarig Méyer. Their first year was not only special academically but
personally as well. `We all met our boyfriends then,’ Najarian notes,
laughing. No rivalries existed between the women and they lived like
sisters, encouraging each other and always helping one another in a
pinch. Throughout the years, those friendships have remained strong
and precious to Najarian – and to the other women as well. This was
apparent in the touching account Angie Bahuth gave of their AUB days
and in the high respect and admiration she expressed for Najarian at
the dinner, which was organized largely through her efforts.
Najarian considers AUB the major stepping stone that enabled her and
her friends to go to America and support themselves there. She likes
to tell people that she went from Beirut to Chicago with only 90
cents in her pocket, with which she purchased a bowl of chili with
some saltines, `The absolute best!’ she recalls. In no time at all,
she found work at Wesley Memorial Hospital and they paid her tuition
to go to Northwestern University for additional schooling. By then,
she and Vartkes had married and the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio,
where they stayed for twenty years. There, she became the mother of
three boys and one girl, who all grew up to become successful
professionals. For the last twenty-five years, the family has lived
in southern California.
It is not surprising that Najarian should care so much for the
welfare of others. Her early years were a time of severe hardship for
the family. She grew up poor, but very much loved, the child of
parents who fled Armenia during the genocide. Despite limited
financial circumstances, giving was a tradition deeply rooted in the
family. `My sister and I once won a cash prize award at school, and
we were so happy. On our return home, my father congratulated us, but
said we had to give the money to others in the community who needed
it more. This is where I got my philanthropy from,’ she recalls.
Turning her thoughts to nursing education, Najarian says, `I find it
disappointing that not many Armenian girls are enrolled in AUB’s
Nursing School today. We need to draw more young women into the
program. There is such a huge nursing shortage in the United States,
and what I want is for AUB to prepare nurses for job placement in
Najarian feels so strongly about the matter that, true to form, she
is thinking of launching a grass roots effort to help. `I will simply
go into the high schools in Beirut or Aleppo, where I graduated from
high school and persuade the young women to consider a career in
nursing and apply to AUB. I am positive we can find them financial
assistance as needed.’
The tribute came to an end following speeches from leaders in the Los
Angeles and Armenian-American community, as well as friends and
family. The AUB Alumni Association of North America presented
Najarian with a resolution commending her humanitarian service.
All without exception dwelled upon the humanitarian essence of her
work to improve the quality of medical care in Armenia, as they spoke
of the many ways in which this one woman had touched and enhanced the
lives of countless people, patients and doctors alike. Watching her
face glow during this gratifying show of respect, admiration, and
affection, one was also made to realize the extent to which Mary
Najarian’s modesty, compassion, and tireless dedication have made her
an inspiration to all those who know her.