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A Doctor's Doctor to be Honored by Fund for Armenian Relief

By Florence Avakian

New York City, NY -----

A modest, unassuming, laid back and extraordinarily gifted and giving individual is Dr. Edgar M. Housepian, a renowned neurosurgeon, and professor.   These praiseworthy personal traits belie a medical professional whose awards and honors crowd many pages.  Visiting him at the world famous Presbyterian Hospital where so many of his accomplishments have been performed, I found him in a small office, lined with paintings of Armenia, happily continuing his research, even though he has been in retirement for 11 years. 
On January 15, 2010, Dr. Housepian will be honored at a gala banquet, sponsored by the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) for his vast contributions to medicine, and for the relief and medical efforts in Armenia.  The event will take place at Cipriani, downtown.
During an exclusive interview with this writer at Presbyterian Hospital, Dr. Housepian revealed that his motivation for going into medicine and especially neurosurgery started with his father whom "I loved and respected very much. He had graduated from medical school in 1905, but they didn't have specialties in those days.  He was a surgeon, delivered babies, and did everything. But after medicine advanced, fields developed, he gave up surgery and obstetrics, and ended his career by being an internist and a general family doctor.   It must have been in my mind that medicine was a very fulfilling field." 
The young Edgar Housepian got his first job as an orderly in the operating room in New York Hospital at age 14, "when World War II was on, and manpower was hard up.   I saw all sorts of operations, even helped out in the autopsy suite.  Then I was asked to scrub on a couple of neurosurgical operations. When you're 15 years old, that's pretty awesome.  It no doubt at least subconsciously influenced my future career. But I buried that thought, and joined the Navy when I turned 17 because I wanted to fly."      
A Passion to Fly

He calls himself "a rotten kid, like most," when he was young. "While in bed with poison ivy I would cut out coupons for all of the flying schools in Flying Magazine.  My family was not amused when occasionally representatives would come to the door. When I was 15, I "fudged" my birth certificate and went to Canada to join the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force).  When I got there, they laughed and sent me home."   He finally joined the Navy V-5 program but left at the end of WWII because he realized that Naval Aviation was not to be his career and instead completed college and enrolled in medical school.
Neuroscience is even more interesting, and burgeoning today because of the advancement in knowledge," he notes.  "Since I started medical school in 1949, half of what I learned is now wrong, and the other half I have forgotten. So you have to keep learning.  Over the years, the field has become more and more specialized and even sub-specialized.  This is better for patients."
Since he retired 11 years ago, at age 70, he has continued fielding a neuroscience review course at Columbia University started 32 years ago.  At retirement, the dean of the school "gave me a long title, but no salary.  I was miffed at first, but then realized how lucky I am.  If the dean had given me a small salary, every time he burped, I would have had to salute," he says chuckling.  "This way I'm able to do what I wanted - to be active with students and faculty in their global interests, continuing to develop affiliations with over 20 medical schools around the world, and stay involved with health care in Armenia.  It's very fulfilling.   I'm not a retiree who plays golf.  When you stop active practice, if you're honest with yourself, it's like stepping off the train. You're standing at the station, and the train is 20 miles down the track.  I can't teach neurosurgery because it's changed that much."
First among his heroes has been Dr. J. Lawrence Pool whom he calls his "father figure, benefactor, teacher. Everything was special about him. He was national squash champion, sailed across the Atlantic, piloted float planes, had a great sense of humor and had a thousand new ideas every month, a true Renaissance man.  He kept you on your toes, and supported you." 
The Dr. Edgar Housepian Professorship in Neurological Surgery which was established by Columbia University Board of Trustees is one of dozens of awards and honors that he has received.  Others that he is most proud of include the Presidential Citation from the Republic of Armenia in 1994; Honorary Doctor of Science by Armenia's Academy of Sciences, and Honorary Doctor of Medicine by Yerevan State Medical University in 1997; and the Humanitarian Award by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons in 2002.  He has also authored more than 100 articles on medicine.  
Dedication to FAR
One of three leaders who created the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) after the 1988 devastating earthquake, under the sponsorship of the Diocese of the Armenian Church, Dr. Housepian followed in the footsteps of his parents who were deeply involved in the Armenian-American community.  His father had gone to Armenia in 1916, and his mother had been a member of the AGBU Central Committee for 30 years.   "They entertained Armenian clergy and officials from overseas.  I was immersed in it, but never involved while my career was developing."
Two years before the earthquake, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian called him and informed him that Catholicos Vasken I was coming to NY, and had a severe back problem. "With his white beard, he always made me think of God and Santa Claus," he remarks with a smile. Dr. Housepian admitted him into the hospital, "but he started getting better and I didn't have to operate on him and was very relieved.  I look back on his admission sheet, and it says 'Occupation, Pope'," he says laughing.  That was his connection with the church until then and he points out that he and his three children were baptized in New York's Holy Cross Church.
Immediately following the earthquake, he called the Primate, and offered his services.  "Anything I've done is because I have had access to so many support services."  He called the president of New York Presbyterian Hospital, Dr, Thomas Morris, and the next day a large room had been set up with a phone bank, with several volunteers from the hospital and community.  Within five days, they had collected millions of dollars of drugs, instruments.   Dozens of physicians - 30 with active passports - volunteered to go to Armenia. "I can't believe how easily it happened." 
However, in the middle of the night, Dr. Housepian received a telephone call from Dr. Marat Vartanian, who had spent time at the New York Psychiatric Institute at Columbia and was the head of psychiatric research in the Soviet Union, telling him not to come to Armenia because there was a plethora of doctors from Europe, the Soviet Union, and there was no hotel space.  The volunteer trip was canceled, but the equipment was sent.  At that point, it was decided that Archbishop Torkom, Kevork Hovnanian and Dr. Housepian should go to see how the church could be of help, hence the creation of FAR.
"It was an awesome experience.  Leninakan (today's Gyumri) was almost totally destroyed.  There was nothing but coffins all over.  If we had taken our team of 30 doctors, we could not have done anything.  I shared a very small room with Kevork for 10 days, and no doubt we bonded then."   Close to a million dollars was raised through the Diocese for humanitarian relief. The FAR board was then formed by the Primate, Hovnanian and Housepian. 
Three weeks after the three leaders returned from Armenia, another team was sent to Armenia with Drs. John Nersessian, orthopedic surgeon at Presbyterian; Dick Fraser, Cornell University neurosurgeon; Dick Gulian, head of plastic surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering; and John Stanley Meyers, professor of rehabilitation and medicine at Columbia University.   Their recommendation was that after the emergency period was over, the best contribution would be in medical education in Armenia, because it was still 30 years behind western medicine conceptually.

Later, Annette Choolfaian, Professor of the New York School of Public Health and a FAR Board member, and Dr. John Nercessian went back to Yerevan to find a working location for the surgical team, which was set to arrive in January 1993 at the request of the Armenian Health Ministry for complex surgery on victims of the earthquake and Karabagh war. Professor Choolfaian and Dr. Nercessian secured the kind permission of the AGBU to use the just-refurbished surgical suite in the Mikaelyan Hospital.

FAR Fellowship Program
That's when the FAR Fellowship Program was started with a tremendous support of Dr. John Bilezekian, at the time head of the endocrinology at Columbia Presbyterian. Eventually close to 90 doctors from Armenia selected by the Ministry of Health have benefited from their three-month training in America.   Four of them became Ministers of Health, and three the directors of major hospitals.  Medical librarians also benefited, with one of them becoming director of the Republican Scientific Medical Library in Yerevan which Dr. Housepian would like to rename the National Library of Medicine of Armenia.
With obvious excitement, Dr. Housepian relates that these former Medical Fellows formed their own fellows alumni association - named the FARFAA. One of the first FAR medical fellows, Dr. Bella Grigorian, with Dr. Gevorg Yaghjyan, Vice-Rector of the Yerevan State Medical University and Dr. Hambardzum Simonyan, Director of FAR/Yerevan Medical Programs, started a Continuing Medical Education program (CME) fashioned after what they saw in Salzburg, Austria. This project entails bringing doctors who have never seen anything new since they left medical school, from the provinces to Yerevan for a month where they are housed, receive a stipend and hands-on training by the best medical personnel who do so voluntarily.  The new recruits also get special equipment for their local hospitals and are encouraged to pass on the information to their communities. "The wonderful thing is they thought it up, and are running it so very well.  We're just financially supporting it," he says, adding that he hopes the celebratory function on January 15 will be successful enough so that many more physicians can attend the refresher program each year.
Anna Shirinian, Director of the Republican Scientific Medical Library, has turned the National Library into a modern medical information center.  She has set up a computer lab and English as a Second Language (ESL) program for which she has been honored with the gold medal from the Armenian president.  During a ten year period, FAR also sent medical journals because the Library had no western literature.  "Although the program is supported by the Armenian government, we would like to see a brand new building to be a regional showplace."  
A First For Armenia
Dr. Housepian says that medical care in Armenia today is better than under the Soviet system.  But his primary focus is on medical education, "the only key to improving health care.  All the things in which FAR has been involved have contributed to the development of close working relationship between the Medical School, health ministry and parliamentary health commission.  That's a first for Armenia", he declares with pride, adding, Many of the former FAR Medical Fellows formed the FAR FAA (FAR Medical Fellows Alumni Association), " This is entirely their own idea.  We're only advising and supporting them."  
The new Rector of the Medical School, Dr. Gohar Kyalyan, created an international advisory board with Dr. Aram Chobanian, President and Dean Emeritus of Boston Universityand FAR Board member, as chair. Dr.Chobanian has received a   grant from the Lincy Foundation to support Dr. Kyalyan's program for curricular reform.  The educational and postgraduate training system will be changed, among other advantages.  "Education isn't sexy in fundraising circles but it's very important".  Dr. Housepian, again states that the only reason he agreed to be the focal point of the January 15 gala is so that funds can be raised for these medical programs.
Early Roots
The personal story of Dr. Housepian's family is intimately tied to the Genocide.  His father, a college student in Kessab during the 1894 massacres, escaped by swimming to a ship, and stowing away to Alexandria, Egypt where he worked in vaudeville for almost a year.  "He used to sing me to sleep with wonderful songs."   Earning enough to go to England, his father put himself through pharmacy school, then emigrated to America in 1900, working his way through the Long Island College of Medicine.  Graduating in 1905, and after completing two years of internship/residency he sailed from New York to  Barbados and up the Amazon river as ship's doctor.    In 1916, he went to Russia with the American Red Cross, then to Etchmiadzin, to take care of refugees from the Genocide.  Returning to America, he started his medical practice.
His mother, who hailed from Izmir, was secretary for an American woman, director of an orphanage and came to America with her in 1920.  His grandmother came to America in 1923 and lived with the Housepian family.  "She always wore black.  She was in mourning her whole life. Her oldest son was killed and just as she and my grandfather were leaving the pier at Smyrna to board a ship, he collapsed and she was not allowed to turn back to see if he was alive or dead", he says sadly.
His early family life taught him the value of independence and creativity.  "Since I've never had a position of real responsibility, I've enjoyed the freedom to be independent and frequently outspoken. I have also enjoyed the freedom to pursue the things which interest me.  The freedom to be innovative sets one apart from just having a job. I'm frequently guilty of pontificating and tell young medical students that I've always done what I want, and that they should do the same."  His formula?  "First you must do everything you have to do, then you can do anything what you want."
Concerning the status of American medicine today, he remarks though medicine is technologically advanced and our physicians receive outstanding education and training, he believes that the general public is empowered to the point that there is a decline in professionalism."
He again reverts to the purpose of the January 15 event in his honor, and expresses the hope that the funds raised will also benefit the Science and Education Fund (ANSEF) which is one of FAR's most ambitious programs run by Dr. Yervant Terzian. 
Need a Strong Country Called Armenia
"Basic research is the intellectual capital for Armenia.  The ANSEF program also trains younger scientists and scholars, and helps to prevent talented scientists and scholars from leaving the country because of lack of funds."  And what are the responsibilities of diasporan Armenians?  "The best way to preserve our heritage is to have a strong country called Armenia that one can relate to."
Would he do anything differently in his life?  "I always wanted to accomplish something really outstanding - but am grateful if I have been able to help individual patients" says this acclaimed doctor with his typical modesty.
He expresses outrage that a Genocide Museum is being built in this country.  "What we need is a museum to celebrate Armenian culture, and civilization.  We have a long 5000 year history of significant cultural and scientific contributions to western civilization; when viewed against that background, the story of our genocide would have much greater impact."
Success for Dr. Housepian is "being at peace with yourself, and feeling fulfilled," which he says is a state of mind.   He lists his successes as his family - his wife of 55 years, and their three children, his elementary education which he notes is more important than college, and the opportunities he has had to pursue all his interests - basic research, clinical care, teaching. In his free time, Dr. Housepian reads non-fiction, travels, but has temporarily given up gardening and tennis after back surgery.
Who is Dr. Edgar Housepian?  "An American boy who grew up in a loving family which supported him, with a superb education from grammar school through professional school, who was given opportunities all along the way, and who also created opportunities."   Always self-effacing, he relates how during a taxi ride in Yerevan, the driver was shocked that this renowned doctor and professor couldn't write his name in Armenian. 
Advice for students today?  "If they are fortunate to develop a passion for any field of interest to them they will have a happy life.  Medicine is most rewarding for those who have found this but could be grim if the opposite were true."

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About FAR

Since its founding in response to the 1988 earthquake, FAR has served hundreds of thousands of people through more than 220 relief and development programs in Armenia and Karabagh. It has channeled more than $265 million in humanitarian assistance by implementing a wide range of projects including emergency relief, construction, education, medical aid, and economic development.
For more information on FAR or to send donations, contact us at 630 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10016; telephone (212) 889-5150; fax (212) 889-4849; http://farusa.org; e-mail press@farusa.org.

-- November 11th, 2009