By Diane Haines, NJ
Herald News
May 1 2006

A Paterson-based physician has given life to his ancestral homeland
of Armenia.

Over the past 10 years, Dr. Haroutune Mekhjian has performed open-heart
surgery on 70 to 80 patients in Armenia. He also has trained Armenian
physicians to do the delicate operations.

His first humanitarian trip was in 1996, only months after the only
heart surgeon in Armenia died unexpectedly at the age of 60.

Mekhjian helped fill the void by providing the much needed surgery
during yearly visits.

"The need for cardiac surgery was so much there," he says. "There are
young women who have had rheumatic fever and their valves are badly
damaged. The operation costs $2,000 and it was nearly impossible to
get that kind of money to be treated. We didn't charge anything."

And those missions are only part of his contribution to Armenia. He
also has shipped medical supplies donated by various vendors and by
St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson.

The irony is that Mekhjian nearly left school to go into the bed
manufacturing business with his father in Syria. Instead, he listened
to his mother.

"I didn't want to go to school after I finished elementary school
training," he recalls. "My father was a successful businessman and
he wanted me to go into the business. He manufactured beds. But my
mother insisted I should go and get my education."

He attended a high school run by American missionaries, where he
learned English. After graduation, he went to the American University
of Beirut -- a renowned university worldwide, but especially in the
Middle East.

In 1916 his ancestors escaped the Turks, who then controlled the area
now known as Armenia. Mekhjian was born on Easter Sunday in 1939 in
Aleppo, Syria, where he attended high school. He traveled to Beirut
to complete medical school and study general surgery. After marrying
his wife, Shake, a registered nurse, the couple emigrated to New York
City in June 1969. Mekhjian began his residency in cardiac surgery
at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, then went on to St. Luke's
Hospital, where he remained in private practice for the next 12 years.

By 1982, he says, "St. Joseph's had the largest cardio-cauterization
department in the whole metropolitan area, with 2,000 cases as
compared to 500 or 600 at New York hospitals." At the time, the chief
of cardiology at St. Joseph's was referring cases to St. Luke's.

It was Mekhjian who launched the open-heart surgery practice at St.
Joseph's that year. He had to wait another 13 years, however, before
taking his first exploratory trip to Armenia, which was virtually
closed to travel while part of the former Soviet Union.

"In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up and Armenia was one of 20 republics
which got its independence," Mekhjian says, "and it was a lot easier
for us to travel. There was news about poverty and the miserable
conditions the people were in. In 1995, I went on a fact-finding
mission with my wife."

After two weeks of collecting information, he returned to New Jersey
and organized a trip for the following year to begin cardiac surgery.

Seated behind his large, wooden desk at the hospital, the 66-year-old
Mekhjian, who lives in Alpine, wears a white lab coat and gestures
frequently with his hands. His neatly ordered desk has piles of
paperwork and a pencil holder with an American flag. Two computers and
a plastic model heart sit on nearby cabinets. The pale green walls
are hung with a large map of the United States and pictures of the
doctor taken at the Vatican with the world leader of the Armenian
Apostolic Church and Pope John Paul II.

On Mekhjian's first working trip to Armenia, he was accompanied by
his wife, a cardiac anesthesiologist and the chief of perfusion (the
operator of the heart and lung machine). There were 15 operations
scheduled over 12 days at Mikaelian Heart Institute in Yerevan,
the capital. All the patients survived and returned home.

The following year, Mekhjian brought a whole team from Armenia
to America.

"They spent one month at St. Joseph's and one month at Westchester
Medical Center (in Westchester County, New York)," he says. "After the
training, I felt confident they could handle the situation themselves."

Over the years, Mekhjian and his team have operated on between 70
and 80 patients, all of whom recovered. Although he has returned to
Armenia each year, it is strictly to consult and deliver supplies.

"They thought we were magicians," he says. "I believe we made a
major contribution."