What motivates a 74-year-old man to leave his comfortable life in New Jersey and become a Fulbright scholar halfway around the globe in Armenia, especially at a time when that area of the world is exploding in turmoil? In the case of New Jersey Medical School psychiatrist Haikaz Grigorian, the impetus is complex and steeped in personal history. It is a story with some drama, told by a man who exudes exceptional composure.
Earth-shaking calamities punctuate the history of the world with some regularity. Between 1915 and 1923, roughly one and a half million Armenians were slaughtered in what has been called a war of extinction. Of those lucky enough to escape the Armenian genocide with their lives, many lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods, reaching relative safety by trekking through often inhospitable terrain to neighboring countries. Among them were Grigorians parents, who crossed Armenias southern border in 1916, and subsequently found their way to an Iraqi refugee camp, where they spent two years and where his mother gave birth to a daughter. When forced to move on once again, the family settled in Iran, where Grigorians father found work in the oil industry.
Iran (then Persia) became the familys home. Grigorian grew up speaking Armenian at home, and learning Farsi, Pashtu and English at school. He is still conversant in all four languages. At age 15, he became seriously ill with malaria, the major turning point in his life, he says. The experience of his illness inspired him to do extensive reading on tropical and parasitic diseases, and subsequently to set his sights on becoming a physician.
He was one of the first Armenian students to make his way to the U.S. to attend college. He went to Boston University, graduating in 1952, then continued his studies at Columbia University, earning a Masters in Public Health one year later. His original plan was to rejoin his family in Iran, but major political changes in that country made his return impossible. Instead, Grigorian completed another masters degree (in biochemistry) at George Washington University and in 1959 became the first physician in his family when he earned his MD from George Washington University School of Medicine. He completed a residency in psychiatry at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington in 1963.
Grigorians personal life took off he married, has four children and eight grandchildren, one born a couple of weeks before his September 20 departure and his career flourished as well. He joined the faculty first at Howard University School of Medicine from 1963 to 1965, then George Washington University School of Medicine from 1966 to 1974. He moved to New Jersey that year, establishing a private practice, and serving first as associate director, then director, of the Department of Psychiatry at Bergen Pines Hospital from 1974 to 1986. He joined UMDNJs faculty in 1987 and became a full professor of clinical psychiatry on July 1, 2000. Among the psychiatrists and other mental health professionals from the U.S. and Armenia he helped to train was one student who translated an American textbook of psychiatry into Persian, dedicating it to Grigorian. He also served as a delegate to the White House Conference on Ethnicity and Mental Health in 1978 and the White House Conference on Aging in 1981.
Yet, while his professional accomplishments were numerous, his soul yearned to establish closer ties with his cultural homeland of Armenia. After coming to the U.S. in 1949, Grigorian never again saw his mother, who died several years after his departure. He saw his father only once. (His father had a heart attack and died one week before he was to move to the U.S. in December 1961.) Although the psychiatrist worked extensively with the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. in many pivotal and visible roles, his real call to action came in late 1989, when Armenia was hit by a devastating earthquake, which killed more than 25,000.
Grigorian went to the disaster site one month later. "It was like an atom bomb had exploded," he says. "For miles around, cities and villages had disappeared. I was horrified and sad. I felt helpless." But feelings of helplessness were quickly extinguished. He rolled up his sleeves, mobilized his own energy and that of others, and spent a month working side by side with Armenian psychiatrists and mental health professionals in tents. "Mental health is not the first priority in a disaster," he points out, "but its very, very important." Post traumatic stress disorder can emerge weeks, even months, after the actual catastrophe.
The clinic he helped establish has seen about 10,000 patients, more than half children. The fears and insecurities experienced by many after a disaster sometimes dont dissipate with time, he explains. "Adults suffered flashbacks, nightmares, apathy, depression and sleeplessness. Children started wetting their beds at night, and developed tics and behavioral problems." Grigorian kept going back to Armenia for nine years, using his vacation time in two- to three-week blocks, to put survivors of all ages back on their feet.
Armenia was still a republic of the Soviet Union when Grigorian first went there. He notes that the repercussions of the earthquake were multiplied by the complexities of Armenias newly-won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and ongoing conflicts with its eastern neighbor Azerbaijan and western neighbor, Turkey. Armenia is landlocked, and both countries have blocked deliveries of oil, gas, food and other necessities over the years. With particularly harsh winters, starvation and the risk of freezing to death are real threats. "Armenia is a third world country," he notes, "with about 40 percent unemployment and great poverty."
From this ongoing work with survivors of disaster, the psychiatrist developed an expertise in the psychological sequelae of mass catastrophe. He authored a chapter on the psychological impact of the earthquake for a book published by the American Psychiatric Association called Natural Disasters and Human Response; and has been recognized time and again for his contributions in this field. Three of particular note are a 1994 award of Recognition of Humanitarian Services from the President of Armenia, a 1995 Recognition Award from the Armenian American Society for studies on stress and genocide, and a 1996 award from the American Psychiatric Association for services to victims of disaster.
This year, the Fulbright takes him once again to his familys homeland, this time to spend five months in Yeravan, the capital city, living at the medical school and teaching medical students and residents in psychiatry. He will also visit the earthquake zone once each month and will attend opening ceremonies for a permanent mental health center that he helped to found.
In his "spare" time, Grigorian will study voice. He began formal musical training three years ago at The Juilliard School in New York, and will continue his singing lessons at the music conservatory in Yerevan, where he plans to become more conversant with Armenian folk songs.
There are some fascinating tidbits about this man that dont quite seem to fit anywhere else in this profile, but cant be ignored:
He keeps in shape by swimming laps, which he has done every day for 30 years.
He was recruited by the CIA a number of years back, but did not accept the offer.
Following the San Francisco earthquake of October 17, 1989, he was consulted about whether the third game of the World Series should go on. His answer: "Absolutely yes. Normalcy is the thing."
His original departure date for Armenia was September 14 , but it was postponed to the 20th. When asked if he had any fears of flying or going across the globe, he replied, "There is no safety anywhere in the world right now. If we give in to fear, we get paralyzed, and we are unable to act. If danger is where I am, so be it...Im not scared."
He considers his role in Armenia to be that of a U.S. ambassador, a responsibility he takes very seriously.
He plans to make a CD of Armenian folk songs while hes abroad.
Grigorian will preserve a small piece of the culture he loves for his extended family and friends. And maybe, just maybe, hell sing those songs for us, too, when he returns.
The magazine of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey