It was a busy time for physical therapist John Putnam and his wife Laurie, an occupational therapist. They had just married and opened their third Back to You clinic in Grosse Pointe Woods when COVID-19 hit.
A few months later, he got a Facebook invitation from a fellow physical therapist to volunteer with a group of medical professionals to help people needing medical care in Armenia.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to use my skill set to do something like this,” he said. “It’s just fueled by a desire to help people.”
The group was organized, arrangements were made, and, in 2021, after a 16-hour flight, their plane touched down in Armenia, a democratic nation in the mountains between Europe and Asia.
Doctors, nurses, dentists, chiropractors, and other therapists, many of Armenian descent, were on the two-week mission.
Overseeing the Armenian Medical Mission was Berj Apkarian, the honorary consul of the Republic of Armenia, based in Fresno, California.
“The mission is an important demonstration of support,” he said. “My gratitude goes to them for serving humanity.”
The volunteers “are fantastic people, and I have a world of respect for them,” said Apkarian, who arranged interviews to publicize the mission visit and showed the volunteers a bit of what the country was like in off-hours.
Once on the ground in the capital of Yerevan, the Putnams and other volunteers saw patients bussed to their clinic. They also traveled to outlying villages, seeing patients in their humble homes, some of which only had dirt floors.
“They’d bring their friends and loved ones as the word grew,” said Putnam. “People would be lined up at the door and at every table, and Laurie was right there in the trenches, helping me,” he said.
“They were so appreciative, they’d go home and come back with fresh fruit to pay us,” though the treatments were free. “They were such wonderful, good-hearted people; it was an all-around amazing experience,” he said.
On the walls of some homes were photos of children and family members who had been lost to war, injuries, or disease.
In addition to treating people, the group also trained local doctors and volunteers who could continue the treatments after they left.
“We wanted to give them the ability and knowledge to treat themselves,” said Putnam.
Though Armenia was the first state to accept Christianity in the early 4th century, it has been fraught with battles and violence waged on its people through the years. In the early 20th century, a genocide by the Ottoman Turks killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians, and thousands fled.
In 1920, the country fell under Soviet rule, but with the collapse of the USSR, Armenia became an independent republic in 1991.
In mid-September, the neighboring state of Azerbaijan regained control over a breakaway Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh after heavy fighting.
Despite that, Apkarian said, the Armenian Medical Mission was dispatching another team of medical volunteers to the country on Sept. 22.
Next year, Putnam hopes to be among them.
“It’s an incredible experience. I want to go back so bad,” he said.