Baku, March 7 – A special humanitarian delegation of ophthalmologists, neurologists and Israeli medical staff flew to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku last week to treat 150 Azerbaijani soldiers wounded in the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The delegation was headed by ophthalmic surgeon Dr. Yishay Falick, CEO of Misgav-Ladach Hospital.   

The Israeli medical team was invited on the fully funded mission to Baku by the Azeri authorities, with 100% of the funding provided by YAŞAT, a local charitable foundation. The delegation experienced several challenges throughout their month-long preparation for the mission, including the sudden closure of Ben Gurion Airport and a required clearance to fly  with special permits from the Exceptions Committee, even though all medical personnel were vaccinated against the coronavirus. With no direct flights available from Israel to Azerbaijan, the Azeris sent a private plane to fly the Israeli doctors and their equipment to Baku.

Among those in Israel who provided assistance to the delegation were Health Minister Yuli Edelstein; Ministry of Health CEO Dr. Hezi Levy; Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabi Ashkenazi; Associate Director General of the Ministry of Health, Itamar Grotto; Knesset members Nir Barkat and Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Exceptions Committee; and Yariv Nornberg, head of the Israel office of the Julius Baer Bank.

The Israeli Embassy in Baku, and its Ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek, supported the humanitarian initiative and accompanied the doctors during their stay. All surgeries were performed at the Zarifa Aliyeva National Ophthalmology Center, the largest and most advanced center in Azerbaijan.

Most of the required treatments were performed in the field of oculoplasty (plastic surgery of the eye and its adjacent parts), and included eye socket restoration, insertion and fitting of a prosthetic eye, eyelid surgery, and more.

 "The young soldiers we met sustained terrible injuries – most were unable to leave the house due to facial deformities," said Dr. Falick. Most of the surgeries were performed by oculoplastic specialists Dr. Vardizer, Dr. Lebertovsky, and Dr. Sholohov, in collaboration with an ocularist Maxim Zalevsky, who adjusted the prostheses to restore the soldiers' faces, allowing them to return to a more normal routine, even in cases where it was impossible to restore their sight.

In a number of cases, the surgeons were able to restore sight to the wounded soldiers. Among the most notable examples are several Azeri soldiers in their early 20s, particularly Arif Gadzhiev, who lost his sight when he was wounded by an exploding shell that left him able to distinguish only between light and darkness. The surgery, which lasted several hours, included the removal of traumatic cataracts, insertion of an intraocular lens and a corneal transplant. After several days in recovery, Arif regained his ability to read. 

Another soldier received an artificial corneal transplant, first undergoing retinal repair surgery, and then receiving a cornea from a donor who underwent reconstruction of the eye surface that had been badly burned in an explosion, using stem cells and a placental membrane 

"To give someone the opportunity to see the world again is an extraordinary feeling,” said Dr. Falick. “I am proud to be part of an Israeli medical system capable of running humanitarian missions – even during a most complex period. I'm proud of all the members of the delegation who came here to help these young people with serious injuries to recover. This is a very beautiful expression of the Israeli volunteer spirit," he added.

The Israeli doctors participated in the mission on a completely voluntarily basis, closing their private clinics to join the international humanitarian operation. The eight-member delegation included senior Israeli physicians Dr. Yoav Vardizer, an ophthalmologist; Dr. Shmuel Lebertovsky, an ophthalmologist who specializes in cataract surgery and corneal transplants, and former director of the Ophthalmology Department at Barzilai Hospital; Dr. Yoreh Barak, Director of the Retinal Unit at Rambam Hospital’s Ophthalmology Department; and Dr. Oved Daniel, a neurologist specializing in the headache treatment.