Dr. Eric Esrailian, chief of UCLA’s Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases, was recognized by Pope Francis for exceptional service to the Roman Catholic Church. Esrailian is the first person of Armenian descent to receive the honor, known as the Benemerenti Medal.

“It is honestly overwhelming and humbling,” said Esrailian, who received the award in Vatican City on Nov. 6. “To be clear, I do not deserve this honor. There are people around the world who save lives and help people in so many ways. They do not receive recognition, but they show up every day, and they are motivated for the right reasons.”

Esrailian was honored for his humanitarian efforts locally and around the world. He has also worked to secure U.S. government recognition of the Armenian genocide through his role as a producer of the films “The Promise” and “Francesco.” The latter, a documentary, features interviews with Pope Francis about the importance of recognizing the genocide and other crimes against humanity. 

Esrailian said science and storytelling can have a powerful impact — each in its own way and when fused together.

“As physicians, we are taught how to help one person at a time,” said Esrailian, who is UCLA’s Lincy Foundation Professor of Clinical Gastroenterology. “While studying at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the UCLA Anderson School of Management, I was able to learn more about how to help whole populations of people. UCLA is now my home, and I feel fortunate to combine any skills that I have developed along my life’s journey to help our university and community.

“Whether it is raising awareness about human rights issues, advising the public about our health system programs or articulating the need for philanthropic support for students, scientists and faculty at UCLA, the better we tell our stories, the more effective we can be for our stakeholders.”

The Benemerenti Medal was first presented by Pope Pius VI in the late 1700s. The award was originally bestowed as a military decoration, but beginning in the 1920s, it was extended to civilians, including laypeople and members of the clergy.