Hear Armenia: A diary of our visit

Open Ears is following a group of Sonova team members as they head to Armenia with the Hear The World Foundation. Nazan Yakar and Christiane Schubert, who volunteered for the project, are both Audiologists with Phonak Germany.  This is their account of the Hear Armenia 2015 project visit. 

Our journey to Armenia began in May 2015, when Nazan and I first talked with the Hear the World Foundation staff about the option to volunteer for a project. Although there was no clear opportunity at the time, just a few weeks later we were lucky enough to be presented with a chance to support the Hear the World project in Armenia. We decided very quickly to accept the offer, as we’re excited about the opportunities to gain practical experiences in the pediatric field, aside from our daily business.

Slowly, we started to learn more about our tasks and about the Hear the World program in Armenia. We had several calls with former volunteers and staff who visited the Arabkir Hospital, where we would work. Together we brainstormed we would support the hospital best this year.

Before we left, Nazan and I collected several items from our pediatric products to bring along, such as Leo plush toys and books, Junior kit clips, cleaning tools and battery testers. Hear the World Foundation, as part of their yearly grant, also provided a variety of hearing instruments and Roger devices.

In a few months, we were ready to split the supplies, pack up our bags and head to Armenia!

Day 1 – Friday, Oct. 23

We left the office around midday to catch our train to Frankfurt, Germany, thanks to our colleague who gave us a ride to the train station. From Frankfurt, we changed trains in Stuttgart, where we faced our first small challenge; a broken elevator. We pulled our heavy luggage up – what seemed like hundreds – of stairs and dragged them to the last train wagon where our assigned seats were. Once we were aboard, we were able to relax and enjoy the ride. We reached our hotel without further difficulties, and happily went to bed early to prepare for our morning flight to Paris.

Before the flight: Waiting for the departure to Paris
Before the flight: Waiting for the departure to Paris

Day 2 – Saturday, Oct. 24

One more full day of travel would finally get us to Armenia, but not without more challenges.

From Frankfurt we flew to Paris where we changed flights and met Elena at the gate to Yerevan, Armenia. (Elena heads the Hear the World Foundation department in Switzerland.) After a five-hour flight, we landed in Yerevan, and together we went to baggage claim. Nazan´s luggage was the first to come out, so I expected mine shortly after, but after an hour of waiting, my bag still hadn’t arrived. A visit to the service counter confirmed what I had feared: it wasn’t coming. My bag was sent to Vienna and was scheduled to arrive Monday.

Fortunately, our driver, who organized by the Arabkir Hospital, was still waiting for us. Although he didn’t speak any English, he was very nice and brought us safely to the health care center (Arbes), where we were staying for the week.
My first impression of the city was that it was very dark. Even though more than a third of the Armenian population lives in the capital, Yerevan, there were not many lights in the city.

At the center, met our photographer, Ehrin, who thoughtfully recommended some places for sightseeing. We then had dinner in a traditional Armenian restaurant, called Lagonid, which had great food and free WiFi! (Compared to Germany, we found that nearly everywhere has free, public WiFi.) Also different from back home, many shops were open until 11 pm, so after dinner I was able to buy some important things to use before my luggage would arrive.

Day 3 – Sunday, Oct. 25

After a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast of toast with feta and jam, we were off for a big tour at 10 am. Hasmik and Lusine, from the Arabkir hospital, picked us up and told us of the day’s plans.

First, we stopped at a beautiful church complex named Goshavank, two hours from Yerevan. When we arrived, we lit a candle and enjoyed a beautiful meal of Armenian tea, figs and fruit. After that, we drove to a very outlying monastery, which, being in the middle of the mountains and colorful forest, looked very mystical. On our way to Dilijan, Hasmik and Lusine invited us to dinner at a restaurant that reminded us all of a German mountain village. We ate a meal of meat, tomatoes, vegetables, baked mushrooms, cheese. Our driver also ate with us and we all raised glasses of sweet red wine to each other several times. There we learned that the Armenian word for “Cheers” is “Kenats.”

In Dilijan, we visited the historic center of the city and enjoyed an excellent dessert. On the way back, Nazan and I stopped by a mall, so I could buy a few more important things that were lost with my luggage.

Day 4– Monday, Oct. 26

Finally, we were ready for work.

Armenia’s working class population has access to a health care system, but many people still go without. As in many other parts of the world, even if you do have health insurance, hearing aids and FM systems are not covered. However, children under seven-years-old have to opportunity to get hearing aids for free at Arabkir hospital thanks to the support of the Hear the World Foundation.

We arrived at the pediatric clinic at the Arabkir Hospital in the center of Yerevan, where Lusine and Hasmik work. Tamara is responsible for the management of the clinic, which has around 500 staff members, and Nelly takes care of the neonatal screenings. The newborn screening is also executed in five provinces of Armenia.

Arabkir-Hospital, main entrance
Arabkir-Hospital, main entrance

Our first patient was a two-year-old boy who was previously fitted with a Naida-UP. The shell of his hearing aid was broke, so we replaced it with a new one we brought with us.

Next, Lusine performed a VRA (Visual Reinforcement Audiometry) test on 22-month-old Hasmik. We replaced her old hearing devices with new Sky Q-UP-hearing aids, and made adjustments according to her audiogram.

Our last patient of the day was a little boy named Armen. The one-year-old suffers from an unknown syndrome and microtia, as well as facial nerve paralysis. The MRI showed fully developed middle ears, but no ear canal on the right side. We performed a free-field-VRA and a measurement of the bone conduction of the left ear. After that, the boy was referred to the neurology for a precise clarification.

Aside from seeing the children, we spent much of the day watching Lusine’s and Hasmik’s operation methods and learning about the devices and equipment they’re using. We updated their Phonak-Target-software and installed an ICube II wireless interface, which will allow them to preform wireless adjustments to children’s hearing aids in the future.

That evening, Christiane finally received her luggage. To celebrate, we went to a brandy distillery named after the highest mountain of the country, Ararat. As Churchill once said, one of the things you need to live a long life is Armenian Cognac. We met many decent people from all around the world and had a lot of fun together at the tasting.

Day 5– Tuesday, Oct. 27

Today we met a few children, and spent the day helping them and telling their story.

In the morning, Ehrin and Elena began work on the Hear the World film, which will feature a little boy named Daniel. (Look for the video on www.hear-the-world.com in the coming months).

We accompanied several adjustments, including one for little Victoria, a very patient one-year-old. and a five-year-old girl named Ruzana, who we provide with a new Roger-system for a better learning in school.

In the afternoon, Nico Hüls, a journalist from Germany, met us at the hospital to interview us about our project for the trade press.

Tired but happy, we finished our day with a simple dinner at Arbes. There, Ehrin and Elena record the last interview of the day with Christiane for the Hear the World film.

Day 6– Wednesday, Oct. 28

Today was one of the most special of the trip.

We had three special guests join us today in Yerevan: Phonak Group Vice President, Martin Grieder; Hear the World Foundation Advisory Board member John Bamford; and Dr Dorothe Veraguth, Head of Audiology and Pediatric Audiology from the Children’s Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. We met them at the Music and Speech Therapy School, next to the clinic, to deliver a special gift.

Thanks to the generosity of staff at Phonak Switzerland and Germany, we gifted them a piano, along with other musical instruments and toys for the children’s speech and music therapy.

The staff and the children from the clinic prepared a beautiful program for us for the celebration, comprised of short dances, poems and other performances. We were so inspired, we all joined them in a dance at the end.

Afterward, we said goodbye to David, Arthur and all the other children and went back to the clinic where
the Hear Armenia project received the John Bamford Award.

John Bamford is a professor emeritus, on the Hear the World Foundation Advisory Board.

The award was presented to the clinic team, the speech therapy center, and the team from the children’s hospital in Zürich, which Dr. Dorothe Veraguth is representing today. As a thank-you gift, the staff of the Arabkir Hospital handed over an award to the Hear the World team as well.

Day 7 –Thursday, Oct. 29

In the morning, we went back to the hospital to meet Robert, a clinics technician who manufactures ear molds for the children. We were surprised when he started to talk to us in fluent German. He shared with us that he was born in Austria and immigrated to Armenia 10 years ago.

After that, we went to a school where five kids with hearing loss from the Arabkir Hospital are using FM systems to better understand their teacher. Despite the large classrooms with poor acoustics, the school ranks high on a technical level.

Every child has their own tablet computer, and parents are informed about the homework via email. It was amazing seeing all the technology in action, and truly helping the children learn.

In the afternoon, we drove to a maternity clinic to receive an update on the current status of the newborn screenings. This was especially interesting for Dr. Veraguth, who has been implementing the program in Armenia since 2007. Thanks to the financial aid of the Hear the World Foundation, the screening program has since been extended to 5 provinces of Armenia. Together we joined a TEOAE-measurement on a couple two-day-old newborns. With this test, the hair cell activity of the inner ear is reviewed. Thankfully, both children are healthy and had a normal measuring result.

In the evening, the manager of the maternity clinic, Tamara, invited us to have dinner with her and the whole team. The dinner was typical Armenian – we shared miscellaneous starters, like hummus, filled vine leafs, eggplant-salat, countless dips and of course pita bread. It was delicious! An additional highlight of the day was a jazz concert, which we enjoyed at the famous opera of Yerevan.

Day 8 –Friday, Oct. 30

Today it was a little quieter in the clinic.

Elena and Ehrin had already departed and the two of us were left on our own. This enabled us to have enough time to calibrate the audiometric cabine with Hasmik und Lusine. We also checked the new FM Systems and witnessed the excitement in both of their eyes about the easy usage of the systems. We gave them a few tricks on how to use the software, and showed them how exchange a case.

After a few more adjustments we went back to our guesthouse and packed up our luggage, so it would be ready for our early flight back to Germany the next morning.

We are very thankful to Hear the World for this great, eventful week at Arabkir Hospital. It was one that changed our lives, and hopefully the lives of everyone we had the opportunity to help in Armenia.


Nazan and Christine

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