The Fresno Bee, October 7, 2017

The Valley often feels like a little United Nations, and never more so than when we are in a hospital emergency room. We all meet there in pain, stripped down to an ugly dress, and needing kindness and care.

So who better to serve as ambassadors of our sunny California U.N. than the medical professionals in our hospitals and clinics?

Today, as we sip our pumpkin lattes and pitch quarters at the Big Fresno Fair carnival, teams of Valley doctors and other medical professionals are volunteering their time and talents in far away Armenia, performing major surgeries and other procedures with folks who are not only distant geographically but also in medical knowledge and resources of medical supplies.

This dream team is arranged by Fresno Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia Berj K. Apkarian, and these professionals have taken $1 million in donated medical supplies and equipment in over 100 pieces of luggage.

They are not alone. Doctors by the dozen in our region travel the world year around doing medical missions abroad, taking a treasure that cannot be sent in a shipping crate. That is their experience, expertise, training and knowledge that is far beyond the reach of their patients and the medical professionals they teach and assist while there.

“Humanitarian work is more than a box of food,” says Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, a Kaiser Permanente surgeon, “it is unconditional support that comes out of our hearts, and delivered with dignity.”

So who are these ambassadors in scrubs? As we did a quick spot check of just a few hospitals, we found an impressive array of traveling physicians. Here are but a few. Maybe you know some of them.

Kaiser Permanente Fresno

Dr. Thomas Kaschak, podiatrist, travels to Da Nang, Vietnam, every year to provide care at the Da Nang Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center. Kaschak and his team typically perform more than 30 surgical procedures each time they visit Da Nang.

They’ve treated patients with severe birth defects and deformities, helped others who have polio and cerebral palsy and corrected sometimes rare, musculoskeletal disorders. In 2011, Kaschak was honored with Kaiser Permanente’s David Lawrence Community Service Award, which recognizes Kaiser Permanente employees and physicians who work to improve community health and quality of life.

Dr. Van Boghossian, chief of surgery, is part of the team of medical providers that travels every year to Armenia. Boghossian performs laparoscopic surgeries while abroad. He left Friday to spend two weeks in Armenia. Accompanying him are colleagues Dr. Iona Schipor, head and neck physician; Dr. Garabet Khatchikian, adult medicine physician; and Dr. Garine Lepejian, pediatrician.

Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, surgeon, is president of the Syrian American Medical Society and travels abroad with the nonprofit medical organization to provide medical relief to Syrian residents. He also traveled to Texas recently to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

Adventist Health Medical Office

Dr. Romeo Castillo, Hanford Family Medicine residency medical director, organizes annual residency mission trips overseas. In July, he left for the Palawan Adventist Hospital in the Philippines with Drs. Humberto Villalvazo, family physician; Daniel Schlund, ear, nose and throat surgeon; Pauline Seguban and Jatinder Singh, family medicine residents; and Madge Castillo, registered nurse.

Valley Children’s Healthcare

For 20 years, Dr. Marty Clayman, pediatric anesthesiologist, has provided anesthesia services during cleft lip and palate surgeries through Operation Smile International, ReSurge,Global Smile Foundation and foreign-based groups in China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya and El Salvador. He’s heading to Bhutan in November and Ecuador in March..

Pediatric surgeons Karen Cartwright and Cindy Taihave volunteered to serve in Haiti, and Cartwright also worked in Africa.

Dr. Peter Witt, medical director, pediatric plastic surgery, has traveled to North Korea, China and Africa to perform cleft lip and palate surgeries. He will go to Vietnam in November for two weeks.

Dr. Robert Kezirian, pediatric emergency medicine, travels to Mexico to help with medical screenings on kids, and Dr. Janice Kezirian, pediatric emergency medicine, is in Armenia now to conduct medical screenings.

Dr. Chokechai Rongkavilit, medical director, pediatric infectious disease, served in China.

Two-way street

This is not a one-sided friendship. Dr. David S. Hodge, pediatric surgeon, and Dr. Jeffrey L. Thomas, obstetrician/gynecologist recently wrote in The Bee about the rewards they get from such an experience.

Many say there is an opportunity to take time away from their busy medical practices to teach eager medical students, to be free from the Western pace of life. They can enjoy the culture of their host country, try new foods and drinks, maybe learn a local dance or sport.

It’s a time to practice a foreign language and appreciate the difficulty in maneuvering with your broken language. In Armenian, they are likely to hear excited whispers of “pzhishk”(doctor) and “ser” (love.)

And then there is the great appreciation from their patients, colleagues and students.

Tarakji shared this note from Leila, a Texan in the Houston suburbs that he met during his work after Hurricane Harvey in August.

“I just wanted to take a minute by telling you all how very grateful I am to have found you in our time of need. Seeing the whole group you deployed to the apartment complex was a sense of relief. The sense of community and unity in this extremely difficult time is so very important to all of us, for we are all family.”

Over the past year, Tarakji has had the opportunity to provide humanitarian aid during natural disasters like Harvey in Texas, as well as during wars like the Mosul battle in Iraq.

“Regardless of the cause, “ he says, “you can always see the parents seeking help and safety for their families. You can always see the kids – fearful – but their resilience always can overcome the challenge. I heard Leila’s statement in many languages in many countries.”

This article originally appeared in  The Fresno Bee