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Amerikos Argyriou: The life of a doctor in Limassol, who changed the lives of thousands in Cyprus!

23/02/2020
* NOTE: All the tributes of All About Limassol (as the Official Guide of Limassol) aim to ONLY highlight the special aspects of this wonderful city, so that everyone can be aware of the exceptional options they offer. Under no circumstances do they have any promotional or nominal value, and they do not serve the interests of Companies, Municipalities, Organizations or Individuals.

On 7/11/1924, in Polis Chrysohous, a boy was born, one who was set to write history in Cyprus, particularly in Limassol, where he went on to become one of the most renowned and pioneering physicians. Amerikos Argyriou established Cyprus’s first pediatric clinic in Limassol in 1969, and though that was a pioneering step in itself, he did not stop there.

Cyprus has Amerikos Argyriou to thank for the radical change in the treatment of children with intellectual disabilities, and for establishing prenatal tests. This enterprising doctor was awarded many times, both in Cyprus and abroad, for his work. And though his work and professional career is well-known, there is much about his character and personality – which were the driving force behind all that he achieved and contributed to the local community – that is unknown to many.

Until 2005, at the age of 81, Amerikos was still working in his clinic, as well on the administrative board of the Theotokos Foundation, which he created and established, giving the gift of hope and dignity to thousands of people with intellectual disabilities, as well as to their families. Surprisingly, his son Argyris, who is his father’s successor at the pediatric clinic, never recalls his father being tired. Old age was the only factor that led to Amerikos’s retirement. And so, All About Limassol (Official), as the Official Guide of Limassol, pays tribute to this brilliant scientist through a conversation with his son about who Amerikos was, as a doctor and a person.

Amerikos aged 4 years old (left) and as a teen (right).

The course of a Cypriot with an ‘American’ name, from England to Beirut

The uniqueness of his story begins with his family environment, and his name. His father, Argyris, planned on immigrating permanently to America, to follow in the footsteps of his other brothers, but changed his mind when he married and decided to start a family in Polis Chrysohous.

The brief experience of emigration was reflected in the names of his children, Virginia and Amerikos.

His father, with the help of his brother, Socrates, set up a branch of the petroleum agency Shell, and exclusively supplied petroleum to the Limni mine. He was also engaged in the trade of food, carobs and almonds. Amerikos was the youngest child in the family, and his father made a point of sending him to the Pancyprian Gymnasium in Nicosia, followed by the American Academy in Larnaca to study. This is when his accolades began, as he was the youngest graduate of the Pancyprian Gymnasium at the mere age of 16.5.

Amerikos’s grandparents from Drouseia of Paphos (left), and his father, Argyris, with his mother, Mari, in Polys Chrysohous (right).

After the Second World War, he went to Athens to study medicine. It was there that his resourceful personality began to emerge, as he became actively involved in a number of societies. He became a founding member of EFEK (National Cypriot Student Union), maintaining good relationships with all political factions, despite his participation in the EDEK party. 

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His leadership skills were also evident through the many rallies that were taking place at the time over the Cyprus issue. 

After his University studies, he went to England, where he completed his medical training in the pediatrics units of various hospitals. In 1961 he was granted a scholarship from the World Health Organization for the American University of Beirut, for the public health issues of mothers and children.

His medical registration in Beirut. 

The first pediatric clinic of Cyprus in Limassol 

Armed with only his scientific background, Amerikos found himself in Limassol, where his ability to envision and accomplish remarkable things immediately resulted in the creation of the first pediatric clinic of Cyprus. In fact, a new licensing legislation was required, as there was no previous precedent.

Not long after, the story of the Theotokos Foundation begins. “At some point, my father was called to visit a child with intellectual disabilities, in the place that was used to accommodate them. That was when he saw how inhumanely these people were being treated. They were neglected, some even chained to their beds. And so he set out to give them a dignified solution,” says Amerikos’s son, Argyris.

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“And so, he came up with the Theotokos Foundation. He managed to secure funds for the establishment, staffing, and equipment of the Foundation. Thankfully, my father was well-known by the local community for his skills and his ethos, and this encouraged investors to trust him,” he adds.

The cost of running the Foundation each year is €2 million, which is covered by major donors as well as through donations by ordinary people.

What is the role of the Foundation?
Initially it was aimed to just be a shelter, but it has since evolved into an organization that can look after children with intellectual disabilities on a daily basis, offering them a creative outlet until they return to their families, as well as physical and other kinds of therapy. Now, the goal is to de-institutionalize people and offer help and support as they relocate to independent units.

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What is its biggest success to date?
The greatest contribution made by the Foundation and my father was the fact that it began to remove the social stigma associated with children with intellectual disabilities, which forced families to hide them rather than integrate them into society.

The culmination of the efforts which began with the Theotokos Foundation was the creation of the Center of Preventive Pediatrics.

Why was this necessary?
Having worked with intellectually disabled children for decades, we saw that many cases could have been more effectively managed if parents were made aware of the chromosomal abnormalities of the fetus. With the establishment of the Prevention Center, we essentially introduced prenatal screening, which is a key step in the pregnancy process for all pregnant women for the past 30 years.

Since 2005, tests have also included fetal hearing tests.

At the time, this technology was unprecedented for Cypriot standards, though these tests had been taking place in Europe for many years. My father closely monitored the developments abroad, through conferences and contacts with colleagues in Sweden, England, and Greece.

And so, Limassol became the base for prenatal testing for all pregnant women in Cyprus.

Essentially, the Prevention Center covered a basic need that should have already been covered by the state.

Amerikos the person

Many people have come to know Amerikos as the restless, enterprising doctor. And the truth is, this aspect of him made up a large part of his life and his daily routine. His home, his wife, his 2 daughters and his son saw little of him. “I remember being happy every time I got sick, because this meant he would have to spend more time with me,” recalls his son, Argyris.

“At some point, he decided to turn the empty plot next to the house and the clinic into a football pitch, so that he could play with us, even for a little while, when he was done with work.”

Was it your father’s demand that you choose medicine as your own profession?
He never forced me to follow in his footsteps, or to carry on his medical practice. On the contrary, he would warn me of the heavy responsibility that came with a career in medicine. For me, it was a choice I made almost automatically, though I had no idea what to expect when I went to Medical school.

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Snapshots from the medical practice of Amerikos Argyriou.

I had some success in the theoretical coursework, and I was communicative and capable of dealing with people, something that is ultimately an important aspect of a doctor’s work. This is something that my father was good at too, he would draw people close to him and inspire confidence. This is why, in the first years when I started working at the clinic, his practice was full of patients and mine was almost empty. But he took care of that too.

He would either be away often, or he would tell my mother to send patients to me, saying “The young doctor is here now. Why are you looking for the old one?”

When I finally followed this career myself, I understood and justified our father’s attitude while we were growing up. Of course, my son Amerikos also chose to study medicine, probably because of the strong influence his grandfather had on him.

“The elder Amerikos was still active when the younger one was still a student in primary school, and for him, his grandfather was a role model,” explains Argyris. In the photo, grandfather and grandson, sharing the same name, salute his portrait. 

Besides what you experienced at home, what did you hear about your father from other people?
From the things we would hear, we knew that our father was a very good doctor, one who was not so interested in making money from practicing medicine.

My father made a point of seeing patients pro bono if they were not able to pay.

In the early days when I took over duties at the clinic as a young doctor, I didn’t make any money despite seeing about 120 patients daily, because many were being treated without paying.

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As a child, do you remember him being cheerful or serious?
Most of the time I remember him being somber and serious. But he was a man with humor and tenderness. In more carefree moments, during celebrations or at family gatherings, he was always more relaxed and expressive.

He remained a simple man, and he would always enjoy his visits to his hometown of Polis Chrysohous. He did not like showing off, and even after he became financially comfortable, he never threw his money around wastefully.

He didn’t spoil us as children either. Everything he gave us was in moderation. He was strict in this area too, especially with me, because the expectations of sons were always greater, as he believed that every great project had to have successors through the years.

The Center for Preventive Pediatrics in Limassol. 

Have things changed in the medical profession since then?
Many people continue to practice the profession for the sake of being doctors, but there are those who are shortsighted and try to make money with every opportunity, taking advantage of opportunities even at the expense of human suffering.

Personally, I follow the example of my father, and have often done pro bono work for patients.

People have told me that I am ‘ruining it for the rest of them’ with my actions. But I don’t do it to feel superior, or to gain peoples’ favor. If I believe it is the right thing to do, if I see that someone is struggling to pay, this is how I have learned to handle this situation.

Perhaps this desire for profiteering is a symptom of the bad mentality we have on certain issues as a Cypriot society. We do not lag behind in education, but the arrogance and rudeness I see in certain aspects of our daily life show a lack of a different kind of education.

Does the young Amerikos wish to return to Limassol to practice medicine?
Yes, he wants to return to his city when he completes his studies. This is what his grandfather definitely would have wanted. After all, Limassol has many advantages. From its climate and environment to the fact that it is a society that is still fairly small, which means it is still friendly, where everyone knows each other and we can support each other when need be.

Can Limassol support new ventures and young people?
There is a sense of momentum, but there needs to be coordination from the relevant authorities. There needs to be a plan set for how processes work in each area, so that young people with skills and an appetite for work can find a place in which to develop themselves.

As long as the correct foundations are set, there won’t need to be mediations and bribes in order for young people to move forward.

Limassol has what it takes to lead and bring back its young people who are working abroad, so that the economy can move forward and take strides in the fields of economics, science and technology.

Why are these conditions missing right now?
The general direction of our public services is wrong. For instance, when the state only allocates 5% of its GDP to public health, it makes sense that our hospitals are as bad as they are. In most European countries, this amount is at 10%.

The biggest benefit that public health could have is modern and well-equipped hospitals, with well-paid doctors.

This should be the basis for both the public and private sectors to function correctly.

This wrong tactic of weakening the public health system has been going on for decades. This is why my father realized that he would need to fully carry the creation of a modern medical center on his own back, as nothing would ever come from the state, or if it did, it would be extremely delayed.

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"We would need another 10 Amerikos in order to do the same in every specialty, but alas there is no such thing".

Amerikos Argyriou had the opportunity to become a government official, after he was nominated for Minister of Health by George Vassiliou. Such a position would give him the opportunity to make great strides in an area he knew very well and actually cared about. After all, the harmonious relations he maintained with all political parties (he had been awarded over time by all governments and all political parties) would allow him to implement measures that were universally accepted.

His desire to continue to keep an eye on the Theotokos Foundation and the Center for Preventive Pediatrics, however, as well as his intention to support his son as much as possible to continue the work he started, kept him from accepting the position. He never abstained from being actively involved, for as long as his strengths allowed him. No formal age limit was enough to keep him confined at home, as is often the case with the elderly. On 18/2/2020, he passed away at the age of 95. He left behind the fourth book he had begun writing, but at the same time he was content in the knowledge that the inheritance he left behind to his country would continue to benefit thousands of people, comforting those in dire need.

* NOTE: The tributes of the Project "History of Limassol" present information that has emerged from historical research thus far. Any new data is embedded into the tributes, once it has been confirmed.