Dr. Sharon Chekijian Collaborates with AUA to Develop Armenia’s Emergency Response Systems
Dr. Sharon Anoush Chekijian is an esteemed medical doctor, Director, and Assistant Professor at the Yale School of Medicine who recently joined the exclusive group of ChangeMakers of the American University of Armenia (AUA). With a strong belief in the power of education to take Armenia in the direction that would ensure a brighter future for the country, she is committed to extending her personal and professional expertise to the next generation of forward-thinkers and leaders.
Dr. Chekijian has partnered with AUA in the past, contributing to the growth of the University and student success in different ways. No doubt, her philanthropic comportment was imparted to her by her family — her father, Yervant Chekijian, and late uncle, Samuel Chekijian, are both AUA Pillars. She comments how fortunate they have felt to be able to support AUA’s mission and vision, which they also shared, adding, “Our family has always believed in the power of education to change lives, countries, and destinies. I believe that is because we have experienced the power of education first hand.”
Born to an Armenian family from Jerusalem with ancestral roots in Zeytoun and Marash, Dr. Chekijian was raised in the Boston area of Massachusetts and currently resides in Connecticut. The granddaughter of genocide survivors Mary (née Zümrüt Norashkharian) and Youhanna Chekijian, she reflects on how this heritage has colored her worldview, strengthening her desire to work hard and aspire to success in honor of the invincible will and strength of her grandparents. “As children and grandchildren of genocide survivors, we know everything can be taken away from you, but not your education. We also know that the future of a brilliant and prosperous Armenia lies in the education of those who will continue to grow and transform the country.”
Dr. Chekijian remembers her first trip to Armenia during the first Artsakh War. She visited for the summer with a special educational exemption through the AGBU/University of Michigan summer language program — a trip that preceded a critical time for the nation and served as a catalyst for her dedication to the Armenian cause. “On our return flight on Aeroflot via Paris, we learned that the Soviet Union had collapsed while we were in the air. This heralded a lifelong fascination with the birth and subsequent shaping of the newly independent Republic of Armenia,” she says.
Though AUA was founded soon after her return home, she was first introduced to the University while in medical school. Upon applying for funding to work on a project titled, “Legal, Professional, Public and Policy Barriers to the Development of Organ Donation and Transplantation Programs in the Republic of Armenia” — which later served as the basis of her thesis — she met Dr. Varduhi Petrosyan, current dean of the AUA Turpanjian College of Health Sciences (CHS).
“Dr. Petrosyan was one of the researchers in this project at the start of my career. The work I did that summer introduced me to people who have become lifelong collaborators. Since then, AUA has been a home away from home for all of my work and projects in Armenia that focus on emergency medical systems, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, traffic safety, and stroke care,” she explains, adding that she is currently working on a grant that combines many of these areas of interest.
In 2020, Dr. Chekijian became a Fulbright Scholar, continuing her work with CHS. “AUA was a natural partner and home for me, and the Fulbright Program allows me to advance my work in emergency care program development in Armenia.” Dr. Chekijian is working to optimize emergency systems and establish a novel emergency medicine residency program in cooperation with the Armenian Ministry of Health’s National Institute of Health. She is collaborating with colleagues at AUA on the research component of this initiative.
Dr. Chekijian emphasizes the value of developing emergency systems and disaster preparedness, something she thinks has been grossly undervalued, both in Armenia and globally. She had submitted her proposal right before March 2020, after which Armenia was drawn into the ravages of both COVID-19 and the 2020 Artsakh War, overwhelming the nation and its healthcare system. The timing of the Fulbright grant she was awarded perfectly lined up with her intent.
Further underlining the importance of a functional emergency care system, she cites global statistics that suggest Armenian citizens are at an unusually high risk for disaster in multiple ways, 2020 standing as an unfortunate example of being caught unaware and unprepared for the danger that ensued. She explains, “Emergency response relies on a functional emergency care system. The global burden of disease has recently shifted toward trauma and non-communicable diseases. The World Bank estimates that, in low- and middle-income countries, more than 50% of deaths and 40% of the disease burden could be alleviated with adequate emergency medical care.” She continues to remark that the silver lining in all this is that we recognize the amplified value that emergency response systems would bring and are aware of the work we have to do in Armenia to strengthen these systems.
Through the AUA Open Centers of Excellence, such as the Open Center for Transformative Health Solutions, students and faculty are able to collaborate with private and public stakeholders to develop processes that will address areas lacking within the national framework. “The development of emergency care systems can multiply the functioning of the health system overall and improve outcomes for all other disease processes,” Dr. Chekijian notes. “Weak delivery systems are especially dangerous when pushed to their limit, potentially due to a pandemic, a foreign attack, or a natural disaster resulting in mass casualties. Some cite cost as a reason not to strengthen emergency care and response, but globally, the development of emergency systems has proven to be an extremely efficient way to provide care across many different conditions. Surprisingly, emergency care is among the most cost-effective public health interventions.”
As an AUA ChangeMaker, Dr. Chekijian is happy to see that AUA students have already been introduced to these concepts, resulting in heightened interest in the subjects. “Our current students will lead the charge to right these wrongs and shore up our safety in the future. It’s my hope that AUA will become a regional center of excellence in the areas of disaster preparedness and injury prevention across the region and especially across Central Asia, where very few people are working in this field,” she urges.
In conclusion, she paraphrases Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” AUA is grateful for the longtime support of the Chekijian family, and highly values the commitment of Dr. Chekijian as a ChangeMaker for the University.