A La Cañada Flintridge resident, with the help of a nonprofit organization called Mending Kids, will use his facial reconstructive surgery talents to help youths in Armenia.
Plastic surgeon Andre Panossian is looking forward to landing in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, at the end of the month and performing surgeries.
“It’s a dream to go there and help my own heritage and people out in that part of the world,” Panossian said in a recent interview. “It’s a unique little spot. It’s the first Christian nation in the world and is surrounded by enemies. It’s a tiny little nation and holding its own.
“It’s a nice place to set up shop for medical diplomacy. That was the big thing I had envisioned.”
Isabelle Fox, executive director of Glendale-based Mending Kids, said Panossian’s work is vital to the development of quality pediatric reconstructive surgical care in Armenia because he has highly specialized skills and shares his knowledge with local surgical teams, mentoring and training surgeons there.
She said Panossian’s first mission to Armenia for Mending Kids was in 2016 after local doctors requested that he teach advanced skills and techniques.
Mending Kids’ role is to coordinate Panossian’s mission trips with regard to developing relationships with local surgeons and administrators, booking travel and accommodations, raising funds, obtaining surgical instruments and supplies and finding volunteers, Fox said.
Money donated to Mending Kids supports the expenses for the mission including supplies, flights, medications, accommodations and any other mission-related cost.
“If we ever fundraise more than necessary for that particular mission, the money rolls over to next year’s mission to that site,” Fox said.
Former Mending Kids missions coordinator Editt Nikoyan Taslakian helped start the organization’s focus on Armenia soon after she became a volunteer in 2013.
Taslakian, now a Mayo Clinic medical student, said Panossian’s work was important because he’s training the same doctors year after year and giving them advanced skill sets to work on children who need reconstructive surgery.
Panossian, who is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, said he performs a lot of newer surgeries for facial paralysis, which is helpful when he travels to Armenia.
“It’s one of the big areas I treat,” he said. “I will do my technique, which is unique to myself and several other people in the world, for reconstruction. The traditional way is you need an ICU [intensive care unit], you need specialized equipment, but with this method I don’t need any of that. It’s very amenable to doing that overseas. That was my focus area, and a lot of places in the world don’t really offer that — especially third-world countries.”
Panossian said he has been able to train doctors as he performs the surgeries, which can include removing vascular birthmarks.
“Those are very large tumors made of blood vessels that kids can be born with or develop later on,” said Panossian, who graduated from UCLA and the Tufts University School of Medicine and later was accepted into a combined general surgery and plastic surgery residency at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “They’re difficult to manage. When you do those surgeries, they bleed quite a lot, so there are some challenges.”
Another surgery he performs is for neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder in which tumors form on nerve tissue. It affects people all over the world.
“One in 3,000 have the condition, but you would never know it because they hide it or they hide themselves from the public eye,” said Panossian, adding that those affected can look badly deformed. “You don’t realize how many people live with that condition.”
For his day job, Panossian performs cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery for children and adults at his office in Pasadena. His wife, Jill Simonian, said that Panossian loves his work, but that the missions in Armenia fulfill him in a way his regular practice does not.
“He always says, ‘This is the real purpose of plastic surgery,’” Simonian said.
The couple and their two children, who attend La Cañada Elementary School, will be going to Armenia together for the first time in late June, she said.
“We’ll be there the entire time and spend a little bit of time with him in the clinic when it’s appropriate,” Simonian said. “I think it will definitely change me, because I have never been on a trip like this. I’ve had the opportunity in the past several years to have met some of the kids that he’s operated on and some of the families that he’s helped through his own practice and some of the local missions he done. I don’t know what to expect, but think I’ll have more understanding of what he does.”
Panossian, who began his career with Mending Kids back in 2006 and has worked in areas like Haiti, said he hopes his family learns from the Armenia experience.
“It’s a unique experience,” Panossian said. “To go back to Armenia and be immersed in your own culture that is semi-forgotten living here in California. Not really, as there’s quite a bit of Armenia culture here, but it’s another facet of life. … It’s an adventurous spirit you’re tapping into.”
For get more information or to donate, visit mendingkids.org/armenia.html.