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After Seven Weeks of Israeli Rehab, Earthquake Victims Return Home

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Plump, carefully made-up Aliona, a 21-year-old victim of last year’s Armenian earthquake, slowly negotiated the gangway of the El Al plane at Yerevan Airport Tuesday morning, her right stump moving a new, artificial leg and her crushed left leg firmly encased in plaster.

Following her painfully slow but resolutely determined descent was Lubov, walking confidently on her prosthesis. Lubov lost both her small children in the disaster.

Aliona and Lubov were members of the group of 61 survivors of the Armenian earthquake, who flew from Ben-Gurion Airport to Yerevan after a seven-week rehabilitation in Israeli hospitals.

Some were fitted with prostheses; others underwent complicated operations on their damage limbs; still others — like Aliona — needed both kinds of treatment.

Theirs was a mercy mission organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which brought a rare outpouring of praise for Israel and its medical men from all around the world.

In Yerevan itself on Tuesday, the Armenian Minister of Welfare, Narine Balayan, said that although her country had received help from all over the world, it was “especially grateful” to Israel.

And, in a touching salute to the Jewish state to which she hopes to move soon, 17-year-old Rina said, “Here in Yerevan people say Israeli doctors work miracles.”

Rina, dressed with the modesty of Bnei Brak or Brooklyn’s Borough Park, said she was virtually the only female Orthodox Jew living in the Armenian capital.

Most of the group returning to Yerevan arrived in Israel June 27, with some in wheel chairs and most apprehensive and skeptical at the prospect of real rehabilitation.

Now, as they walked unaided toward the airport building, their families, crowding the visitors’ balconies, began to cheer and shout.

One man could not contain himself and jumped through the ground floor window to run toward his mother, only to be pushed back by an unyielding Soviet policeman.

For most of the survivors, the return to Armenia was very painful.

One woman, whose rehabilitation had gone smoothly, could not face her family wearing her prosthesis. But after gentle persuasion from her doctor, Dori Herer, an orthopedic surgeon at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital who accompanied the group, she reluctantly strapped the leg on as the plane landed.

Hovik, a 16-year-old boy whose left leg was amputated just below the hip, cried as his father hugged him and angrily threw down his crutches.

Again, it was Herer who quietly calmed him, before he turned away with tears in his eyes.

Herer had operated on 18 of the survivors. In Hovik’s case, he had to repair damage resulting from an unsuccessful amputation in Armenia, before an artificial leg could be fitted.

Work on Aliona’s left leg was more complicated. It had been crushed by falling masonry that had severed her right leg; the nerves and muscles had died and the limb was flaccid and useless. Herer fused the muscles so that her leg was fixed in what he termed a “functional position,” encased, until it healed in place, in a plaster cast.

Both Tel Hashomer Hospital, where 27 amputees had been treated by Professor Tully Steinbach, and Rambam Hospital, where 34 patients were cared for by Professor Haim Stein, supplied the Armenians with documents in clear English describing their rehabilitation and giving precise instructions for further medical attention.

According to Dr. Herer, successful rehabilitation hinges not only on expert medical help but also on motivation and support from family and friends.

In June, that support came willingly from Israel’s tiny Armenian community. Nearly all the 600 Armenians living in Haifa and Jaffa had turned out to welcome the group when it arrived in Israel, and from that moment they were inseparable.

Members of the community took turns sitting with patients recovering from operations. As second and third generation Israelis who cling fiercely to their Armenian language and customs, they acted as interpreters and also as guides during bus tours of Israel arranged by the JDC.

One of the leaders of the Haifa community, Yerem Lapadjian, who accompanied the group on his first ever trip to Armenia, recalled their visit to the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem — a particularly moving experience for these deeply religious Christians.

Yerem, a burly car electrician in his thirties, was overcome with emotion as the plane touched down at Yerevan, but he cried openly when he had to part from the survivors who, he said, had become as “dear as his own family.”

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