About a decade ago, Lessya Kotelevskaya was knocked in the jaw during a basketball game in Kazakhstan and the swelling was misdiagnosed as cancer. Radiation treatments disfigured her face, making it difficult for her to eat, talk and live a normal life.
Now doctors, led by a team from University of Louisville Physicians, are preparing to reconstruct her face, offering the 30-year-old woman a chance for a new life in a new country — after years of hiding in the shadows of society in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic where she had lived since childhood.
“I just want to become a normal person so I don’t have to concentrate on my face,” she said last week through her cousin, who interpreted for Kotelevskaya. On Tuesday, the slightly-built blonde attended a news conference alongside her surgeon and the older cousin she lives with in Louisville.
A bandage covered her wound, and she dabbed away tears as she told reporters, through her cousin Oleg Sennik, that the medical care “means everything” to her.
Kotelevskaya lost her home, husband and business after being diagnosed with jaw cancer at age 19. It took years to find out the diagnosis was wrong. The radiation prescribed by her doctor in Kazakhstan caused a gaping hole in her right cheek.
Dr. Jarrod Little, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who will lead her operations, said he’s confident she can regain a new life.
“There’ll never be a normal the way it was before all of this started,” he said. “Our goals are to reconstruct her jawbone so she can eat, so she can talk, so she can swallow, she can function in normal society without having the stigmas that have been associated with her.”
Her initial surgery is Nov. 14.
The reconstructive surgery is set for January and will likely last 20 to 24 hours, Little said. During the second procedure, doctors will remove a leg bone that still includes skin and blood vessels. The bone will be conformed into a new jawbone, and the skin will become the new inside covering of her mouth, Little said.
It’s not a new procedure for the medical team, since Kentucky has some of the nation’s highest rates of head and neck cancer, he said.
Kotelevskaya’s cousin used to babysit her when her family lived in the Ukraine and he spent years searching for her before reconnecting online. He brought her to Kentucky in July.
Kotelevskaya’s life began unraveling soon after she was accidentally elbowed at the basketball game. She went to a doctor a few days later for a swollen jaw and the doctor said she had terminal cancer in her jawbone.
The diagnosis was based on biopsy results. Little said such a misdiagnosis “is not an unheard of story.”
“There are benign tumors of the jawbone which, if you’re not accustomed to looking at them underneath the microscope, or you don’t have specialized pathologists like we do here, they can be mistaken for malignant tumors,” he said.
At the time, she and her husband ran a clothing boutique, but barely able to speak or eat from the radiation, her husband left her and their business went under.
“Everyone turned away from her,” said her cousin.
She scraped by for several 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. Her son, now 6, started school for the first time in August in Kentucky.
When Sennik finally found her, Kotelevskaya was a mere 79 pounds. He took her to the Ukraine for treatment, and doctors determined she did not have cancer.
Kotelevskay has regained strength and now weighs 126 pounds despite her limited diet, her cousin said.
She drinks protein shakes and takes vitamins. For the foods she can eat, such as mashed potatoes, she pushes small bits behind her left chin and swallows, Sennik said. When drinking, she holds a towel on the side of her face to catch liquid that dribbles out.
Kotelevskaya, in this country on a green card, hopes to someday become a nurse, but for now, she’s focused on her health. She’s looking forward to taking a bite out of an apple.
“Just simple things like that,” her cousin said.