A woman left disfigured by radiation treatments for a cancer she never had underwent reconstructive surgery Monday in Kentucky, hoping to restore the life she once thought was over after losing her husband, business, and home in a former Soviet republic.
Lessya Kotelevskaya could be in surgery for as long as 24 hours at University of Louisville Hospital, said Tiffany Meredith, a spokeswoman for the surgical team.
"She has waited for this day for many, many years," said her older cousin, Oleg Sennik, who brought Kotelevskaya and her young son to live with him in Louisville last year. "She just wants to be a normal person."
The procedure includes removing a leg bone to be conformed into a new jawbone, with the skin becoming the new inside covering of her mouth. Dr. Jarrod Little, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with UofL Physicians, was donating his time and leading the team on the $1 million-plus surgery, said Meredith, a spokeswoman for UofL Physicians.
UofL Hospital President Ken Marshall said the hospital was doing its part, too.
"We will make sure Lessya does not incur any personal hospital charges from her surgery," he said.
A few hours into the procedure, Little indicated the surgery was proceeding as planned, according to a Twitter post by UofL Physicians.
Kotelevskaya, now 30, spent years hiding in the shadows of society in Kazakhstan, where the Ukrainian native had lived since childhood.
She was diagnosed with jaw cancer at age 19 after she was accidentally elbowed in the face at a basketball game and her jaw became swollen.
The radiation treatments caused a gaping hole in her right cheek, making it difficult to eat and talk. At the time, she and her husband ran a clothing boutique. It took years to find out the diagnosis was wrong. By then, her husband had left her and their business went under.
She scraped by for years, cleaning a gym or carrying sand to people's doorways so they wouldn't slip on the ice. She worked at night so people wouldn't see her. At one point, she lived in the utility room of a car wash. All the time, she cared for her young son, according to Meredith.
Sennik said he spent years trying to find Kotelevskaya until finally reconnecting online. She was a mere 79 pounds when they reunited, Sennik said. He took her cousin to Ukraine for treatment, and doctors determined she did not have cancer.
Kotelevskaya now weighs 122 pounds. She drinks protein shakes and takes vitamins to supplement the small amounts of solid food she eats.
Since arriving in Kentucky, Kotelevskaya has started English lessons and got a driver's license, Sennik said. Her son, now 7, is adjusting well, he said.
"She says she wants to get her 11 years that she lost back," Sennik said in a phone interview Monday.
Kotelevskaya is in this country on a green card but hopes to become an American citizen, her cousin said. Inspired by the medical care she's received, she hopes to someday become a nurse, he said.
Sennik said there is no way his family could have afforded the surgery.
"My mind is just totally blown away," he said. "It probably could happen only in this country, that people are so kind and supportive."