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CUMC Town Hall Meeting
To accommodate the schedules of faculty, staff and students, the fall Town Hall meeting led by Dr. Gerald Fischbach will be held on Monday, Oct. 4, at 4 p.m. and repeated on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 7 a.m. in the P&S Alumni Auditorium.

POINT OF VIEW

It's Not Just About the Teeth
By reaching out to help needy children, a CUMC dental student discovers that healing teeth is only part of the joy of his profession

By MARK NALBANDIAN

MARK NALBANDIAN
As an Armenian who had never set foot on Armenian land, I heard many relatives and friends speak of the need to visit my cultural and ethnic homeland. So when I heard last spring about a California-based Armenian-American dentist, Robert Garabedian, D.D.S. who was planning a charitable mission to provide dental care at a summer camp in Armenia for needy and orphaned children, I quickly pursued the idea of joining him. Since I had just completed my junior year in dental school, I felt I would be able to contribute to the children's care as well as build and enhance my clinical skills.

I was also excited about traveling in a far away and unknown land, particularly to a country whose history, culture and tradition I had heard so much about since childhood and whose values were cherished by my community. The trip was unforgettable; now I'm waiting impatiently for next summer to come around so that I may once again go and help those who so need and appreciate our help.

SDOS student Mark Nalbandian with a young patient in an Armenian summer camp. Youngsters doing what all campers do at summer camp.

The program I took part in originated 11 years ago when another dentist, Viken Garabedian, D.D.S. traveled to Armenia to provide dental treatment to Armenian orphans at the same camp. At that time there were no dental chairs and a minimum of equipment. A reclining chair and a house lamp satisfied the requirement for a basic dental setup in the clinic. Now, a little more than a decade later, the clinic proudly displays four fully operational dental chairs and all the necessary hardware and other dental materials comparable to Western standards. All of this is a testament to the efforts and hard work of Dr. Viken Garabedian and the many American dentists who donated both materially and of themselves to help those most in need. Today, three different groups of American dentists journey to the camp each summer – two groups in June and one in July.

The camp is located in a valley surrounded by low mountains about two hours from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The 20-day camp experience for 8- to 17-year-olds, financed by the local Armenian church, is meant to provide a happy summer experience for the children while also attending to their oral health care needs. Thirty yards from the camp a river brings melted ice water down from the mountain peaks. The camp is the only structure for miles and life there is simple, with few daily comforts apart from those achieved by human interactions among the children, staff and visiting medical professionals. The well-designed and well-equipped clinic capable of delivering a high standard of dental service stands out in sharp contrast to the simplicity of the rest of the camp.

Because our time in the camp was so short – we had six days to see to the dental needs of 50 Armenian and 20 Georgian children – the experience was a crash course in dentistry that allowed me to hone my skills and improve my speed at completing certain procedures. I also learned a great deal from Dr. Robert Garabedian, the California dentist who led my group. Working in a small clinic allowed ample opportunity to observe him and consult with him. I benefited greatly from working so closely to someone with 40 years experience. The first afternoon we completed dental cleanings for each child and over the course of the next days we performed about 500 restorations, since each child had an average of seven cavities.

When we weren't working, just being at the camp was exciting. We stayed in the same building complex as the children, which made our visit more enjoyable. Interaction with the kids reduced their anxieties and they were more relaxed when they came to the clinic for treatment. At night, there was disco for the children, bonfires and card games for the adults.

Although I spent my entire summer vacation in Armenia traveling and visiting family, the time I spent at the children's camp stands out. I have many memories of the experience, but one that particularly resonates is the time we handed out toothbrushes and toothpaste to the children during lunch and they all stood up to chant "Thank you" over and over for five minutes straight. Such expressions of gratitude made me feel that my work was incredibly appreciated and inspired me to return again next summer. I strongly urge anyone whose curiosity is sparked by my experience to join me next year. I promise, it will be unforgettable.

Mark Nalbandian is now in his senior year at SDOS, currently in the process of applying to oral and maxillofacial surgery programs. He encourages anyone interested in more information about volunteering for the Armenia program to email him at msn2001@columbia.edu.


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