La Jolla doctor takes her cause up Mount Kilimanjaro

[imagebrowser id=258]By Steven Mihailovich

When you ask a question of Dr. Anna Kulidjian, orthopedic surgeon and chief of the Musculoskeletal Oncology Unit at the Moores Cancer Center at UCSD, you’ll find yourself intermittently asking her to repeat the answer.

The reason is not a lack of attention on the listener’s part. It’s not the slight accent that bares her Armenian roots. It’s just that Kulidjian answers with so much depth, detail and zeal that the listener sometimes has to hear it again to get it all.

Kulidjian pours her passion and prowess into the matter at hand, whether it’s her research at UCSD, her patients, her family, the environment, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or improving medical care for the Massai people of Kenya.

For Kulidjian, it’s not a question of her countless interests, though she has many. She just believes that all of them are connected in a big, almost spiritual, way.

“I think that connectedness is what fascinates me,” she said. “In my profession, I’m just connecting people to different specialists. That ability to look at something and learn that it’s connected makes life so much fun.”

Kulidjian moved to La Jolla three years ago to develop an oncology unit for treating and studying rare cancers and tumors of the bone and soft tissue. Because of the numerous types of tumors and cancers, including malignant sarcoma, affecting the specific tissues, the highest risk of each occurs at different ages, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens.

However, Kulidjian said the growths are so uncommon that they are often misdiagnosed, leading to incomplete procedures she calls “whoops” surgeries.

“The complexity of it, the variables, is what makes it so fascinating to study,” she said. “Research has shown that it requires a population of 3 million to generate one surgeon (in the field). And that’s not enough for a training center. By being so rare, the whole thing is to centralize the treatment. I interviewed at various centers but chose this center because of its reputation. The care we can give and the research we can do all made sense to me.”

The new unit has 11 staff members, including five specialists, that concentrate solely on the debilitating disease and serve the region from Irvine to the Mexican border and as far east as Las Vegas, Kulidjian said.

The doctor’s efforts to establish the unit earned her the Health Care Champions Award in the Health Care Staff category on Oct. 13 from the San Diego Business Journal, which recognizes achievements by local medical professionals and groups.

“To be among those people is truly an honor,” Kulidjian said. “I was surprised really to be recognized but it’s great to bring awareness.”

Kulidjian’s dogged determination in not merely a professional trait. This August, she and her husband, Ara, organized an expedition of five people to the top of the Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 19,341 feet.

Kulidjian said the group climbed the legendary dormant volcano to raise funds to purchase an ambulance for the sole clinic serving the approximately 7,500 Massai people living on 250,000 acres on the Kenyan side of Kilimanjaro’s base.

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