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Woman of the Year

Alumnus Mary Najarian (RN ’55) has spent much of the last twenty years working day and night to improve medical care in Armenia. Attending a gala in her honor, Lynn Mahoney finds in the woman an inspiring mix of courage, humility, and dedication.

There are tributes, and then there are tributes.
So I discovered in Los Angeles the evening of February 2, 2004. It happened to be Superbowl Sunday, a tough night in the United States to draw a crowd to any event without the lure of a wide screen television broadcast of the game. But as I realized while watching the large crowd arrive to recognize her twenty years of humanitarian service in Armenia, Mary Najarian is no ordinary woman.
Some 500 hundred friends and members of family filled the George Deukmejian Ballroom at the Ararat Home in Los Angeles. Each table was lavishly spread with mezzeh and flowers, as well as with a charming selection of Armenian folk dolls and prayer beads donated by Najarian. As we all sat down for dinner, the heartfelt laudatory speeches began. Each speaker commented on how Najarian had touched the lives of so many people in Armenia, as well as their own—a profound tribute to a woman who makes no fuss about her vital work and has no expectations of recognition.
Mary Najarian’s humanitarian activities in Armenia began in 1984, while the country was still under the heavy yoke of the former Soviet Union and entry was close to impossible for foreigners. Just one year after that visit, she and her husband, Vartkes Najarian (MD ’57) founded Medical Outreach for Armenians, which since then has raised, donated, and transported over 46 million dollars worth of medical and surgical supplies to Armenia and Karabagh.
Najarian’s commitment to improving medical care in Armenia has been extraordinary, and the extent of it was personally relayed during the dinner by her friends and family, particularly by her beautiful daughter Maro Yacoubian, who totally shares her mother’s dedication. She told of countless late nights, phone calls to Armenia at all hours, and the hard work of preparing the shipments of medical supplies. In fact, Maro noted, her parents’ labor of love consumed so much of their time that it was not until January 2004 that they took their first vacation ever—a cruise around the Caribbean.
Commenting on the tributes, Najarian observed with characteristic understatement, “It makes you feel good…it’s so encouraging to know people appreciate what you have done. That I am a woman and was able to accomplish as much as I have makes a difference, too. You know, Armenia is a man’s world, and it is hard for women to open doors.”
Mary and Vartkes Najarian have taken a decidedly hands-on approach to medical outreach. In 1985, Vartkes himself carried the first arthroscopic set to Armenia and taught the local physicians knee surgery using the latest medical equipment. Mary, on her part, personally supervised the renovation of an operating room and trained nurses in the aseptic technique.
“My nursing education at AUB was a huge help in my relief efforts. As a nurse, I worked side by side with my husband. I would check supplies while in the field and find out what is needed,” she said, reflecting on her education. “The training at AUB was and is still superior to anything I have seen, especially in surgical nursing.”
It was during the first trips to Armenia that she saw just how far behind the hospitals were on modern surgical techniques. “It was like being in the Middle Ages,” she recalled. “It took Vartkes and me three to four weeks to get the doctors trained in aseptic techniques— before that they didn’t even wear facemasks or scrub for surgery.”
The war in Karabagh brought new challenges for the Najarians. Medical Outreach for Armenia, the non-profit organization they founded to improve healthcare in Armenia, continued sending medical supplies from Los Angeles when the war started, but as the number of casualties rose, they simply had to go to Armenia to help. “Vartkes and I traveled to the war zone and worked there. This was the hardest challenge of all.”
Once in Karabagh, they literally worked in the trenches, as wounded soldiers were brought in from the battlefield. “There were no hospitals in the war zone. We operated in tunnels with flashlights that would only work for 20 minutes and Vartkes would be performing surgery on the floor.” She tells how saddening it was to see these young men, many of them only 18 or 19 years old, suffer. “They were kids and would usually stay with us for a week recovering. Later, they would return with their parents to thank us—that, in itself, was payment enough for our hard work.”
Throughout those difficult war years, while continuing to return to Armenia to assist with surgeries, the Najarians also kept sending cartloads of medical supplies gathered from top pharmaceutical and surgical equipment companies – in one year alone they shipped 50 containers to Karabagh. “The Armenian medical community was just astounded—they had never seen so many new medications in such quantities before,” she exclaimed.
Considering her many travels to Armenia, Najarian’s dedication is obvious. She has been to Armenia 46 times and Karabagh 22 times—at the rate of two or three times a year, especially during the war for stays of two to six weeks.
One of her greatest accomplishments, which she modestly mentions, is her work at the Veterans Hospital in Yerevan. “The conditions were unbelievably bad. There were eight to ten patients to a room, with the beds all connected. There was no running water except for two hours a day. The toilets were horrible—there was one toilet for every 50 patients and you could not get in and out without carrying traces of fecal matter.” Medical Outreach for Armenians renovated seven floors in the hospital, in addition to three annex floors. Bathrooms were constructed as well with one for each ward of five patients along with more bedrooms for patients. Operating rooms were modernized with equipment from the US.

But there is still much work to be done, says Najarian. “While the Veterans Hospital has improved tremendously and can now provide proper medical care for the military and their families, it is not available to the poor and the needy. Many patients go to the hospital to die because that is all they can afford to do,” she explains. “This causes me much pain.”
Not surprisingly, the Najarians are determined to find a way to fix this problematic situation, much as they did with renovating the Veterans Hospital. “We are planning to establish a hospital, equipped with foreign doctors working on a volunteer basis to provide free health care for those who need it.” What they are lacking, however, is the facility. “I am determined to insist in the Armenian newspapers that the government must provide us with a building. I feel I have not accomplished anything until the public has free access to medical care.”
Until then, the Najarians will continue with letters to the government and rallying the support of the American medical community to establish the hospital. And the shipments of medical supplies will go on. “We have been lucky in getting out a container every two to three weeks. And we can support a hospital, if given the chance.”

Najarian also shared memories of her student days: “The University was very prestigious. To say you were an AUB student was something big.” She arrived at AUB with three very close friends from the American School in Aleppo, Syria—Angie Bahuth, Adrin Beheler, and Knarig Méyer. Their first year was not only special academically but personally as well. “We all met our boyfriends then,” Najarian notes, laughing. No rivalries existed between the women and they lived like sisters, encouraging each other and always helping one another in a pinch. Throughout the years, those friendships have remained strong and precious to Najarian—and to the other women as well. This was apparent in the touching account Angie Bahuth gave of their AUB days and in the high respect and admiration she expressed for Najarian at the dinner, which was organized largely through her efforts.
Najarian considers AUB the major stepping stone that enabled her and her friends to go to America and support themselves there. She likes to tell people that she went from Beirut to Chicago with only 90 cents in her pocket, with which she purchased a bowl of chili with some saltines, “The absolute best!” she recalls. In no time at all, she found work at Wesley Memorial Hospital and they paid her tuition to go to Northwestern University for additional schooling. By then, she and Vartkes had married and the couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where they stayed for twenty years. There, she became the mother of three boys and one girl, who all grew up to become successful professionals. For the last twenty-five years, the family has lived in southern California.
It is not surprising that Najarian should care so much for the welfare of others. Her early years were a time of severe hardship for the family. She grew up poor, but very much loved, the child of parents who fled Armenia during the genocide. Despite limited financial circumstances, giving was a tradition deeply rooted in the family. “My sister and I once won a cash prize award at school, and we were so happy. On our return home, my father congratulated us, but said we had to give the money to others in the community who needed it more. This is where I got my philanthropy from,” she recalls.
Turning her thoughts to nursing education, Najarian says, “I find it disappointing that not many Armenian girls are enrolled in AUB’s Nursing School today. We need to draw more young women into the program. There is such a huge nursing shortage in the United States, and what I want is for AUB to prepare nurses for job placement in America.”
Najarian feels so strongly about the matter that, true to form, she is thinking of launching a grass roots effort to help. “I will simply go into the high schools in Beirut or Aleppo, where I graduated from high school and persuade the young women to consider a career in nursing and apply to AUB. I am positive we can find them financial assistance as needed.”
The tribute came to an end following speeches from leaders in the Los Angeles and Armenian-American community, as well as friends and family. The AUB Alumni Association of North America presented Najarian with a resolution commending her humanitarian service.
All without exception dwelled upon the humanitarian essence of her work to improve the quality of medical care in Armenia, as they spoke of the many ways in which this one woman had touched and enhanced the lives of countless people, patients and doctors alike. Watching her face glow during this gratifying show of respect, admiration, and affection, one was also made to realize the extent to which Mary Najarian’s modesty, compassion, and tireless dedication have made her an inspiration to all those who know her.