Perpetual Free Spirit: The Legacy of Sara Ann Bilezikian

Sara Bilezikian was a free spirit, in the truest sense of the word. One whose priorities lay within nature, dedicating her time to protecting the earth and its inhabitants. Tragically, Sara’s life was cut short at the age of 23, but the fervent spirit she possessed did not die—it lives on through her name. 

(Sara, on her college graduation day in 2001)

After her passing, Sara’s parents, Drs. John and Sophie Bilezikian, established many scholarships and programs, one of which exists at the American University of Armenia. Through these efforts, her parents ensure that her name will continue to have a powerful impact, with recipients and fellows being granted the opportunity to follow their passions, aligned with the same beliefs and goals that Sara was working toward in her life. With the Sara Ann Bilezikian Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund establishment, they are hopeful that AUA female students pursuing an education in science and technology will exit from the University with the knowledge and skills they need to build successful careers and make an impact in their homeland.

Dr. John Bilezikian was born in Boston, to an Armenian father who was born in 1908 in Marash, Turkey. His father’s family escaped the Armenian Genocide through a hidden tunnel system within their neighborhood. Eventually, the family emigrated to the United States in 1922. John’s father then married and started a family with John’s mother, who was also Armenian. Dr. Sophie Bilezikian was born in the United States to an American family, of which some members trace their roots to the Philadelphia Quakers and others before the American Revolution. 

John and Sophie met in college, where he was attending Harvard and she was enrolled in the institution’s women’s college, Radcliffe. They became better acquainted through their involvement in the school orchestra, where John played the violin and Sophie played the viola. After graduation, they got married in August of 1965, and by September of the same year, they both entered medical school at Columbia. “It was a good way to do it because we helped each other, we didn’t compete with each other, and we got our degrees the same way,” Sophie recalls. Dr. John became an endocrinologist, specializing in osteoporosis and other metabolic bone diseases; Dr. Sophie obtained her training in internal medicine and hematology. 

Their family grew with the birth of their late daughter, Sara Ann Bilezikian, who was born in 1978 and grew up in Scarsdale, New York. From a young age, her parents recall Sara being drawn to helping make the world a better place. “She was aware of the many blessings she had in life, and at the same time, she became aware that most people were not as fortunate as she was,” they say. 

(Sara with her parents, Sophie and John Bilezikian, in 2001)

Sara enrolled at Barnard College in New York City, where she found her footing in the areas that interested her the most, social and environmental justice. While in college, she became deeply committed to taking part in peace efforts to stop war and violence on a local and global scale. Her intense commitment to humanitarian issues led her to take a leave of absence from school to trek to Nicaragua, joining a group of women who were building houses for those whose homes had been destroyed by Hurricane Mitch. She also spent time in Arizona, contributing to efforts to support Native Americans at Big Mountain. “She was special in the way she encompassed the world and endeared herself to things that some people think are lost causes, dedicating herself to saving the world. She had this notion that everybody was worth something and we need to maximize opportunities for those who don’t have what we have,” her parents fondly comment. This compassionate spirit seems to run in the family, as Sara’s older sister, Diana, is also remarkable in this way—tirelessly advocating for young adults with different learning styles. 

After some time directly involved in advocating for peace and human rights, Sara returned to her studies, transferring to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, from where she graduated in 2001, having focused on studies in Environmental Science. Sara had a very bright future ahead of her, but her physical life was tragically and suddenly cut short in 2002. 

In the devastating aftermath of her death, Drs. John and Sophie Bilezikian planted seeds of remembrance in the form of scholarship support to honor the legacy of their daughter. As seasoned physicians, they both place great value on education and through numerous avenues, try to aid students and activists who may not have the opportunity to pursue their goals without financial help. AUA’s “Yes, Armenian Women Can!” campaign drew their interest because of its message to empower women in Armenia in pursuit of careers in technology and science, the same educational and career path their daughter took. 

Sara became increasingly aware of her Armenian heritage during the years after high school. “She was very proud of both of her heritages and related warmly to both sides,” her parents recall. “In her short life, she did not make it to Armenia, but she wanted to go.” 

John and Sophie made their first trip to Armenia in 2007, a trip that was largely influenced by Dr. Edgar Housepian, a renowned neurosurgeon at Columbia, who had gone to volunteer in Armenia after the 1988 earthquake in Spitak. While there, Dr. Housepian lent his medical abilities to aid the people affected during that devastating period and walked away from that experience with his life transformed, dedicating much of the next decades of his life to becoming a champion for Armenia and various educational initiatives there. Dr. Bilezikian recalls an interaction with Dr. Housepian, where he urged him to visit Armenia, saying, “John, it isn’t a matter of if you are going, but when you go, it will change your life.” 

Since 2007, Dr. John Bilezikian has been to Armenia every year (with the exception of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) and has led a program to bring awareness to osteoporosis in the country. The first year he went, he took with him a bone densitometer, which measures how much calcium is in the bones, and thus, helps to determine whether or not someone has osteoporosis. He secured that and 10 more bone densitometers through the generosity of the Hologic Company, who heard of his program and responded generously to his call. He has strategically been able to place these densitometers throughout Armenia, in many locations in Yerevan as well as Gyumri, Vanadzor, Lori, Goris, and other marzes—there is also one in Stepanakert. 

In addition, he has enabled technologists to use these machines, and pioneered an annual symposium, attracting not only doctors and healthcare professionals in Armenia but also doctors from all over the world to be brought up to date in the diagnosis and treatment of osteoporosis. In Yerevan, Dr. Bilezikian established the Osteoporosis Center of Armenia. This center is led by Dr. Varta Babalyan and includes a full-time nurse and research assistants. In addition to its primary focus, the center also conducts research into causes of thyroid disease and vitamin D deficiency in Armenia. These efforts have been supported by generous gifts from foundations, grateful patients, and other sources, making Armenia the center of osteoporosis research and education in Eurasia.

Looking back, Drs. John and Sophie fondly remember the first trip to Armenia that initiated these efforts, keeping in mind their daughter’s memory. “We both felt intensely that she was with us in spirit,” they say. They are happy to see the fields of science grow in Armenia, and especially with women leading the movement, adding that, “Women empowering women in Armenia is an important initiative, and what AUA is doing is helping move that forward. Sara would have been thrilled to know that a scholarship named for her will support young Armenian women in their quest for the tools that will empower and enable them to serve Armenia.”

They both see Armenia as a country that has shown itself to be a leader in technology and entrepreneurship, and they also see science and medicine moving rapidly in the right direction. “I see in many of these areas, Armenia being a leading force globally, and I am optimistic and hopeful that Armenia is destined to grow to make an impact in medicine and biomedical research, locally and internationally,” says Dr. John Bilezikian.   

The entire AUA community is very grateful for the support of Drs. John and Sophie Bilezikian. Sara Ann Bilezikian’s legacy will inspire similar-minded young women at AUA to continue championing to make the world a better place.