When Razmik Ghukasyan received his acceptance letter to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, he and his family were ecstatic. But their celebration was cut short days later when his uncle was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.
During his first year of medical school, Ghukasyan frequently accompanied his uncle, Partev Kolanjian, to oncology appointments at another hospital. He was disturbed by the impersonal way his uncle’s doctors treated him, which differed sharply from what Ghukasyan was learning at UCLA about the importance of a compassionate doctor-patient relationship.
“In school, I was taught to develop a relationship with a patient, even when there is no hope,” Ghukasyan recalled. Everyone at UCLA is instructed that even simple things, like addressing patients as “Mr.” or “Ms.” and explaining in detail what procedures are happening and how long they’ll take, matter.
“Some of my uncle’s oncologists would not even look him in the eyes or acknowledge his concerns,” Ghukasyan said. “His experience gave me a lot of insight into the patient’s perspective and illustrated how important it is to personally connect with my patients and respond to their questions with respect.”
Discouraged by his doctors’ lack of support, his uncle began exploring alternative therapies. The 48-year-old died eight months after his diagnosis, leaving behind a wife and two young children.
His death deeply affected Ghukasyan, ultimately shaping his future career. This month, the 27-year-old recent medical school graduate began a surgical residency at UCLA, where he plans to focus on surgical oncology with an emphasis on pancreatic disease.
“After witnessing pancreatic cancer’s impact on my family,” he said, “I am determined to find more targeted, effective ways to prevent and treat this very aggressive and deadly disease.”
Ghukasyan and his family are no strangers to adversity. Growing up in Armenia, Ghukasyan lived with his parents and extended family in the small town of Ejmiatsin. His family owned a factory in the Soviet Union, but lost their livelihood and savings after Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Armenian economy plunged into chaos; war raged on the Azerbaijan border; supplies of food, medicine and clean water dwindled; and a Turkish blockade created a severe energy crisis. Armenian history books refer to this period as “the dark and cold years.”
“My brother and I slept in layers of clothes at night to beat the freezing winters, and kept our coats on at school because the classroom was so cold,” Ghukasyan said.
Trained as an economist, Ghukasyan’s father resorted to farming to feed the family. He began growing wheat so his mother and wife could grind the flour by hand and bake bread. By raising chickens for eggs and planting vegetables on their land, the family managed to eke out enough food for 10 people.
Everything changed when Ghukasyan turned 14.
“After trying for 10 years, my family won the green-card lottery and we immigrated to America in 2004,” he said. “None of us spoke or understood English, and we had limited finances.”
The family rented an apartment in North Hollywood, where his aunt and uncle had settled earlier. Entering Van Nuys High School as a sophomore, Ghukasyan was the only non-Spanish speaker in his English-as-a-Second-Language class.
“Six months after I arrived in the U.S., I started volunteering at Valley Presbyterian Hospital,” Ghukasyan said. “As the hospital began to feel like my new home, I recognized my desire to become a doctor.”
Driven by his aspiration to enter medical school, he quickly progressed from ESL classes to Advanced Placement. While math and science came easily, honors English and American literature did not.
“The first book we read was ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and I didn’t understand a word of it,” he admitted, laughing. “I pulled a C in the end, but it was the hardest grade I ever earned.”
Intent on entering UCLA, Ghukasyan caught up on the high-school curriculum during his senior year. When the university rejected his application, he still didn’t give up. Graduating high school with a 4.0 grade-point average, he persevered through two years at Los Angeles Valley College before transferring to UCLA as a junior.
At last, his hard work and discipline paid off. Ghukasyan graduated summa cum laude and finally realized his dream to enter medical school. Not only did the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA offer him admission, it also awarded Ghukasyan a Leader of Tomorrow scholarship covering all four years of his educational expenses.
“The scholarship inspired me to become a true leader in the innovation of health care delivery,” he explained. “That’s why I decided to complete a joint degree program in medicine and business.”
In June, he graduated from UCLA with a medical degree and a master’s in business administration from the Anderson School of Management.
In between patients, studying and classes, Ghukasyan also managed to squeeze in a social life. He met his fiancee, Dr. Lily Saringulian, during college and proposed to her last year. She is currently pursuing a pediatric residency at UCLA, and the two will marry in November.
As he launches his seven-year residency, Ghukasyan’s thoughts return frequently to his late uncle’s battle with cancer.
“Never will I be the type of doctor who tells my patients ‘there’s nothing we can do,’” he said. “I want to make an impact by contributing to the study and treatment of pancreatic tumors. Even when, statistically, there is no reason to hope, I will continue to advocate for my patients.”