My story is long and circuitous but fundamental to who and where I am today.
I am Armenian and grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents experienced the Armenian Genocide in the early 1900s, and they were forced to flee the Ottoman Empire because they were Christian. My maternal grandparents ended up in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, which was welcoming Armenian refugees, and my paternal grandparents ended up in Aleppo, Syria.
Both my mom and my dad grew up in the Middle East as Armenian Christians among a predominantly Muslim population at a tense time in the world. They relocated to Beirut as young adults, where they attended the American University of Beirut. At that time, Beirut was considered the pearl of the Mediterranean. It was very cosmopolitan, and people of all races and religions coexisted harmoniously. So, that’s where I was born, and life in Beirut was good for a while. I attended a German school that was among the top institutions. The first language I learned at home was Armenian, followed by German, French, and a little bit of English.
In 1967, the Six-Day War started. I have distinct memories of having curfews, keeping our blinds closed, and being unable to leave the house for days. A huge tank outside our home patrolled the nearby intersection that was stacked with sandbags. It was a very scary time. As soon as the war ended, we were fortunate enough to fly out of Beirut, leaving everything behind for America.
I was 12 years old when we arrived in America, and everything felt so different here. My mom’s family had a home in Bergen County, New Jersey. We stayed there for a few weeks until we purchased a home in Glen Rock, New Jersey, which is where I went to high school. I then went on to college and medical school and did my ophthalmology residency at the George Washington University. We’ve been living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, ever since.
Having experienced the fear of war and then arriving to Bergen County, at this bucolic place with a big grass lawn and no military around, was such a contrast. It taught me resiliency, it taught me courage, and it gave me that ability to conquer. I had very few fears after that. When I thought about going into ophthalmology, many people said, “That’s only for men; it’s very difficult.” But I thought, Why not try? I have nothing to lose. I was accepted to a fabulous ophthalmology residency program and then wanted to see what it would be like to have my own practice.
In my area, there were two physician brothers who had trained at New York Eye and Ear and were still practicing eyes, ears, nose, and throat (EENT). They were in their mid-to-late 70s and were looking to sell, so I went to them and asked if I could buy the ophthalmology portion of their practice. They agreed. On closing day, with our respective attorneys present, I signed the document. Then the brothers looked at me and requested a counter-signature; because I was a woman, they would not honor my signature.
My jaw dropped. Here I was, an ophthalmologist licensed to practice medicine, and they did not honor my signature. My husband, who was there simply to celebrate the event, had to counter-sign for me. It lit me on fire. I was angry inside but composed on the outside because I knew I had to be humble enough to make the deal happen. Thirty years later, Matossian Eye Associates now has three offices and a large group of physicians and staff. Even more interestingly, the story has come full circle: The EENT brothers’ adult children have come to me for cataract surgery. Now, I always try to focus on the positive and prove that yes I can, and yes I will.