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The American Dream: From Refugee to Doctor-to-Be

At three years old, Armine Aghabekian and her mother left their native country of Armenia, fleeing to Greece in hope of a better life. The years that followed were wrought with uncertainty, fear and turmoil which inspired the now 25-year-old to pursue a career in medicine to make a difference and help less fortunate souls. A newlywed entering her second year of medical school at Lincoln Memorial University-DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine (LMU-DCOM) in Harrogate, Tennessee, Armine is living the life and American dream her mother risked so much to give to her.

GROWING UP AS AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT

Armine was born during Armenia’s “dark and cold years” in the early 1990s when the country was struggling with separation from the Soviet Union, a waging war and a looming energy crisis. The country had yet to recover from the earthquakes that struck Armenia in December 1988, killing an estimated 50,000 people, injuring 130,000 more and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. It was a devastating time, and Armine recalls the family waking up in the middle of the night to do all of a day’s work including cooking, laundry and other household chores in the one to two hours of electricity they were allotted. Resources were scarce, and life was more than dim.

In pursuit of a safer life, Armine’s mom arranged for bus tickets and they headed to Greece.

“One of my earliest memories is from that four-day journey by bus,” Armine said. “At the start of that trip I accidentally spilled hot water on my feet, leaving me with two massive third degree burns.”

Over the next several years, her mom, with a limited Greek vocabulary, tried to navigate Armine through the complicated health care system in search of treatment.

Armine recalled, “Growing up in Greece, I went to work each day with my mom, and then I would come home with her. I remember my mom being afraid and telling me not to speak Armenian in public.”

 “I couldn’t go to the doctor because we were illegal, and we didn’t know the language and didn’t have access to resources,” said Armine.

Armine’s mom was desperate to try any treatment she could that might help her daughter’s badly burned feet, and eventually her tireless efforts proved worthwhile. All that remains now are her scars and memories.

“While some may view a scar as a reminder of their suffering, my scars have been my source of inspiration to help others, especially when that help comes in the form of their health,” Armine said. “I know that when a family is suffering from poor health, all the other problems in their life seem miniscule.”

This childhood experience inspired her to want to help others and create change in her community and the world around her.

PURSUING THE AMERICAN DREAM

While living in Greece, Armine’s mom met a man who Armine now calls “Dad.” He was from Jerusalem originally but had moved to the United States to attend college and became a U.S. citizen. For two years they communicated solely by telephone. When Armine was six years old, she and her mom made plans to move to America to start a new life as a family.

While they had hopes of soon living in the land of opportunity, they were still hiding fearfully as illegal immigrants in Greece.

Armine recounts the night before they were to leave for America, “someone broke into our house and stole all of our passports, plane tickets and travel money.”

They were devastated, but that didn’t stop them. Her mother and soon-to-be father worked hard to make up what they lost and get everything in order once again. A month later, they were able to make the trip, and began their new life in Pennsylvania.

Armine had already been through a lifetime of experiences at six years of age. Her next challenge would be learning yet another language. Armine says she was blessed with an incredible English as a second language (ESL) teacher, who sat beside her every day in class and worked with her one-on-one. She quickly mastered the English language and exceled in all of her studies.

PREPARING TO BE A DOCTOR

At 12 years old Armine knew she wanted to become a doctor and at 14, she began volunteering in hospitals. 

Eventually Armine’s family moved to Ohio, and she attended The Ohio State University. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Genetics and a Master of Public Health degree.

It was at Ohio State that she sought to reconnect with her native culture and decided to start the Armenian Students Association (ASA). Through the ASA she met her future husband, Vahag Simonian.

In 2015, Armine served as a medical volunteer with Birthright Armenia where she had the opportunity to travel back to her homeland and spend the summer with her grandmother.

Her grandmother had suffered years of debilitating pain from severe arthritis and osteoporosis. Her deteriorating health and a lack of transportation made the mile-long walk to the hospital physically grueling, but eventually she was able to convince her grandmother to see the doctor.

“The disdain with which the doctor interacted with my grandmother shocked me,” said Armine. “I was unaware that in Armenia, patients over 70 were considered unworthy of medical care due to limited resources. After I pleaded, the doctor reluctantly prescribed the necessary medications.”

For months, she helped her grandmother with the resources she needed to obtain her medication, but when she ran out of money, they had to abandon some of the treatments.

“Realizing my resources and knowledge were not enough to find an affordable and permanent treatment for her pain was heartbreaking,” said Armine. “Unfortunately, this is the reality for millions, including many living in the United States. This experience further deepened my commitment to helping disadvantaged individuals.”

Armine began looking for a medical school that helped underserved communities, and that’s when she discovered LMU-DCOM.

“I’ve always been interested in special populations. I used to volunteer for a homeless shelter, worked at a hospice and interned with the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities,” Armine said.  “I just feel like there are so many groups of people with special needs that aren’t being met.”

Armine was drawn to LMU-DCOM because of its commitment to osteopathic medicine and its philosophy of addressing the whole person and looking at the bigger picture.

 “Instead of just writing a prescription for medicine, it is important to also help a person get electricity or eat healthier food,” she said. “Everything about a patient’s background and lifestyle feeds into his or her health care and outcomes.”

Armine is beginning her second year at LMU-DCOM, with a hope to become a primary care physician that serves people with genetic disorders. This summer she is spending a week volunteering at the Flying Horse Farm, a camp dedicated to providing magical, transforming experiences for children with serious illnesses.

Armine is well on her way to achieving her American dream of becoming a physician.

“It is amazing the circumstances that people are born into,” said Armine. “You never know where you will end up in life. I feel extremely blessed.”

 

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The DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine is located on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. LMU-DCOM is an integral part of LMU’s values-based learning community, and is dedicated to preparing the next generation of osteopathic physicians to provide health care in the often underserved region of Appalachia and beyond. For more information about LMU-DCOM, call 1-800.325.0900, ext. 7082, e-mail dcom@LMUnet.edu, or visit us online at http://med.LMUnet.edu.

 

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