La Jolla doctor takes her cause up Mount Kilimanjaro

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.

An ardent environmentalist, Kulidjian said she learned about the Massai and the clinic through an email about a program to preserve lions in the area.

Having previously donated her medical skills in the Dominican Republic when she lived on the East Coast, Kulidjian spent 10 days at the Massai clinic in 2010 to set up the trauma care, she said. She witnessed their needs first-hand, recounting a story of a pregnant woman who walked one and a half days to the clinic while carrying her 1-year-old child.

The woman and child suffered such acute dehydration, Kulidjian said, that the woman had an infected kidney and both had to be airlifted to a hospital an hour away. It was through her first experience that Kulidjian conceived the idea to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

“The interest is there, so why not climb the mountain and raise awareness and funds?” Kulidjian said.

“The simplicity and affordability and sustainability of solutions are quite astounding if you have one doctor (which they do).”

Though the goal was set, Kulidjian said she was unprepared for the hardships and splendor of the climb. In fact, she had never climbed a San Diego peak beforehand, let alone the glaciers, crevices and narrow ledges of one of the world’s greatest mountains.

“I never even owned a backpack until I did this,” she said. “I did Torrey Pines and thought I was going to die. Like life, when we’re almost there, we tend to think we’re not going to make it and turn back. You just need to take those few extra steps. My experience led to the realization that you can, that you need help to make it and at the end, there is this beauty that can change your life.”

Like many aspects of her life, the experience has become a passion and Kulidjian said she plans to summit Mount Ararat or Mount Fuji in the future. However, she hopes the life she leads provides an example to her greatest passion, her three children.

“I came back and felt the simple things are the most important,” she said. “A simple smile or a look in the eye. I honestly do it because I have a lot of fun and I really want to teach my kids to learn about the bigger world and not just their own personal ones.”


•To learn more about Dr. Kulidjian's trek to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, visit


• To contribute to the efforts to preserve the lands around Mt. Kilimanjaro and improve the living standards of the Massai, visit the Massai Wilderness Conservation Trust website at



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