Woman to Get New Face For Free After Scarring RadiationLessya Kotelevskaya, a stunning blond and former businesswoman, wears a bandage across her face that covers scars caused by a horrific misdiagnosis -- terminal cancer.
By: Susan Donaldson James, ABC News
Lessya Kotelevskaya, a stunning blond and former businesswoman, wears a bandage across her face that covers scars caused by a horrific misdiagnosis -- terminal cancer.
A decade ago, she suffered an injury when a cheering fan accidentally hit her at a basketball game, causing swelling in her jaw, and doctors in her native Kazakhstan put her through cancer radiation that impaired her ability to eat and talk.
The disfiguring treatment was socially isolating: She lost her business and her husband and because she couldn't find a job, and she eventually became homeless.
Kotelevskaya dropped to 79 pounds and was convinced all the while that she was going to die.
But soon, thanks to a loving cousin who lives in the United States, Kotelevskaya, now 30, will get free facial surgery from University of Louisville Physicians.
Dr. Jarrod Little, a plastic surgeon, has agreed to reconstruct her jaw for free. The University of Louisville Hospital has also donated its services, making the gift worth an estimated $1 million.
"They are fantastic people and we are so glad their story is out there," the physician team's spokeswoman Tiffany Meredith told ABCNews.com. "She is so sweet. She said she doesn't feel so self-conscious. She had felt no one cared."
An initial procedure is scheduled for November, and reconstructive surgery will be in January.
"There'll never be a normal the way it was before all of this started," Little told the Sun Herald, which first reported the story.
"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 cousin, Oleg Sennik, 42, who works as a hairdresser in Louisville, told ABCNews.com he was overwhelmed with gratitude for the welcome Americans have given his cousin.
"Everyone has been calling me and texting me and people have been so great and wonderful," he said. "I have been crying all day because this is so unbelievable."
Kotelevskaya was 19, married and expecting her first child, when she sustained the jaw bone injury. But her doctor was convinced the swelling was cancer and ordered radiation.
The intensive treatment damaged her jaw and permanently disfigured the right side of her face. Her doctors also performed an abortion without her consent, according to Sennik.
Meanwhile, Sennik, who had moved to Kentucky in 1996 to escape the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, began looking for Kotelevskaya and the rest of his family, who had he said had "disappeared" since the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
Sennik, whose mother and Kotelevskaya's father were siblings, had spent 25 years searching for the family online. He hadn't seen them since 1986.
"I came to the United States to start building my life here, but they were always on my mind," he said. The family's "passports had been stolen and they couldn't prove who they were. Letters never came. Names of streets changed. Phone numbers changed."
While working as a hairdresser in Louisville, he scoured the Internet and in 2012, he found who he thought might be Kotelevskaya's sister on a Russian version of classmates.com. In her wedding photos, he recognized familiar relatives.
Sennik inquired about the family and offered to help them in any way he could, but the woman initially dismissed his overtures as "spam."
Then one day, she mentioned to her mother that someone named Oleg Sennik had been in touch.
"Her mother wrote me this letter saying that Lessya had cancer and a big hole in her chin and was starting to die," he said.
For the next 18 months, Sennik flew back and forth to see his cousin, even taking her to a doctor in Ukraine who told them she never had cancer.
Meanwhile, he had told his hairdressing clients about his cousin's health problems. One was married to a doctor who suggested his colleagues might help.
Sennik, who is an American citizen, arranged for a green card. Kotelevskaya arrived in the United States on July 5 with her son Erik, who is 6.
"She was so fragile from lack of nutrition," he said. "She can't even open her mouth one millimeter. It takes her so long to eat."
Today, Kotelevskaya weighs 126 pounds and is looking forward to her surgery.
"The doctor said she probably won't be able to open her mouth as wide as we can because the radiation killed the joint that connects the jaw," said Sennik. "The nerves have to come back."
But Sennik said she is hopeful after so many years of ostracism. And Kotelevskaya told him she wants to study to be a nurse.
"She can't believe people smile at her and look her in the eye," said Sennik.