Share Lessya's Story

Picture of Lessya and OlegWhen Lessya Kotelevskaya was 19, she owned her own business in Kazakhstan, was married and expecting a baby.

Life seemed good for Lessya, until she went to a sporting event and another fan accidentally hit her in the face while cheering. A few days later, with her jaw starting to swell, Lessya visited a doctor. There, she received a devastating diagnosis that would change the course of her life forever – she hadn’t injured her jaw, she had cancer in her jawbone. And it was terminal.

She immediately underwent intensive radiation therapy, which damaged her jaw and left the right side of her face permanently disfigured. She was barely able to speak or eat. Now disfigured, Lessya became socially isolated. Once successful, she lost her business, and nobody wanted to hire her because of the way she looked. Her husband left, and eventually, she became homeless.

All the while, she believed she would die.

Ten years later, she weighed just 79 pounds when hope came. Someone in Louisville, Ky., was looking for her – her older cousin, Oleg Sennik, who had cared for Lessya as a child in the Ukraine. They had lost touch after her family moved to Kazakhstan, then a republic of the Soviet Union, to escape the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and so her mother could care for a sick relative. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the two families lost touch.

Dr. Jarrod Little, a plastic surgeon at University of Louisville Physicians, and his team learned of her story and agreed to help Lessya, who had suffered so much.

Oleg later came to the United States, eventually settling in Louisville. But for more than 20 years, he kept looking for Lessya and her family.

Then one day, in January 2012, his search was over. He found Lessya’s sister online, and through her, he found Lessya.

Oleg then embarked on a year-and-a-half mission to help Lessya. He flew back and forth, and while on one trip, he took her to a doctor in Kiev, Ukraine, to find out how much time Lessya really had. What they found shocked them – Lessya didn’t have cancer. She never did.

She now had a second chance, and Oleg brought her and her son, Erik, to Louisville. At the end of July 2013, Lessya’s paperwork was approved and she and Erik finally arrived. Now safe in Louisville, hope found her again: Dr. Jarrod Little, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with University of Louisville Physicians and an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, learned of her story and agreed to help Lessya, who had suffered so much. And he would do it for free.

With a new hope for the future, Lessya settled into life in the United States with Erik, Oleg and Oleg's family. Erik started school in Louisville in August of 2013. On Oct. 25, 2013, at a news conference at the University of Louisville Health Care Outpatient Center, Lessya, Oleg and Dr. Little told her story, which spread around the world. She received an outpouring of public kindness and support. 

“It’s unbelievable, really,” said Oleg. “For her to come from a place where no one cared to this – it means so much."

On Nov. 14, 2013, Lessya began the reconstructive process with Dr. Little, who installed a tissue expander to help prepare for her major surgery at the end of January 2014. On Jan. 6, Lessya suffered a common setback, and the expander was temporarily removed.

Meanwhile, Lessya began taking English lessons, and earned her driver's license in March.

Another expander was implanted on April 10, and Lessya continued to do well. Dr. Little has scheduled her major reconstructive surgery for June 23, during which he will rebuild her face and jaw in a process that is expected to take up to 24 hours, or more.

 

TIMELINE

    • June 23, 2014:

      Lessya's major reconstructive surgery, performed by Dr. Little, is scheduled to take place at University of Louisville Hospital, part of KentuckyOne Health.

    • April 10, 2014:

      Lessya undergoes a third surgery with Dr. Little in preparation for her major reconstructive surgery, now planned for mid-June or mid-July. A new tissue expander is implanted that will remain for six to nine weeks.

    • March 2014:

      Lessya earns her driver's license, and starts taking English lessons.

    • Jan. 6, 2014:

      Lessya suffers a common setback in the reconstructive process and undergoes a second surgery to remove the tissue expander. Her major surgery, which had been scheduled for the end of January, is delayed. Read more here.

    • Nov. 14, 2013:

      Lessya’s initial surgery, performed by Dr. Little, takes place at University of Louisville Hospital, a part of KentuckyOne Health. A tissue expander is implanted to prepare for her major reconstructive surgery.

    • August 2013:

      Erik, now 6, starts school for the first time.

    • August 2013:

      Lessya sees Dr. Jarrod Little, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with University of Louisville Physicians and an assistant professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, after a client of Oleg’s hair salon puts them in touch. Dr. Little, who had been hearing Lessya’s story from colleagues and friends, offers to help Lessya for free.

    • July 5, 2013:

      Lessya and Erik arrive in the United States at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, with just two bags of clothes and Erik’s toys between them. Oleg is there to meet them. Lessya and Erik begin a new life in Louisville with Oleg.

    • May 2012:

      On a visit to see Lessya, Oleg brings her to Kiev, Ukraine, to see a respected medical oncologist to find out how much time she really has. The doctor looks at her original pathology slides, which had been stored in an area for deceased patients in Kazakhstan. Lessya undergoes a battery of new X-rays and tests, and the original slides are reviewed by expert pathologists. It is determined that Lessya never had cancer.

      Lessya now has hope.

    • January 2012:

      Oleg finds Lessya’s sister online, and through her, finds Lessya and her mother and father. He learns of Lessya’s condition and is determined to help her. When he first sees Lessya, she weighs just 79 pounds. He begins the process of bringing her and Erik to Louisville, and in the meantime, he flies back and forth to see her and sends money to help.

      Lessya’s mother and father had separated years earlier, and Vladimir had become homeless himself. Because of lost immigration paperwork, he was unable to return to Ukraine. Oleg calls his grandmother in Russia and tells her that her son Vladimir, missing for more than 20 years, is indeed alive.

    • 2002-2012:

      Lessya has trouble finding a job because no one wants to interact with her. She does odd jobs out of the public eye, including washing cars and spreading sand on the stairs of homes during the winter as the temperature dips to 40 degrees below zero. Essentially homeless, she lives in the basement of a car wash with no running water.

    • 2010:

      Oleg and his sister, Ganna, leave Sebastian and open their own salon in St. Matthews in Louisville, Ky.

    • 2007:

      Lessya’s son, Erik, is born healthy.

      Lessya’s husband, who has been in and out of her life, leaves.

    • 2006:

      Lessya becomes pregnant with son Erik, and has something to live for. But doctors refuse prenatal care because of her condition.

    • 2002:

      A few months later, Lessya visits a doctor about her jaw, and the doctor examines her and sends a biopsy off to Russia.

      Lessya flies to Russia to pick up her test results and bring them back to Kazakhstan. Lessya is diagnosed with terminal cancer in her jaw bone, and told she has three days to three months to live.

      Lessya undergoes intensive radiation therapy to her jaw in Kazakhstan. She completes 40 of the 60 treatments prescribed, then leaves the hospital, refusing chemotherapy after overhearing doctors discussing other patients dying from the treatment.

      Lessya returns home, in pain, and her classmates and friends come to say goodbye. Lessya loses her business as she is unable to work.

      For the next 10 years, she wonders each day if it will be her last. But each day, she survives.

    • Late 2001:

      Lessya, still living in Kazakhstan, is 19 and owns a clothing boutique with her husband. The two attend a basketball game, and when the crowd stands to cheer, a fan accidentally hits Lessya in the jaw. She hears a crack, and over the next few days, her jaw begins to swell. The swelling goes away, but a bump remains.

    • 2001:

      Oleg moves back to Louisville with his sister, Ganna, and continues working for Sebastian.

    • 1996:

      Oleg, who received training as a hairstylist in Ukraine and Europe, moves to the United States and works as a hairdresser. He first lives in Louisville, then moves to San Francisco, Calif., where he works with the artistic team of Sebastian hair care. He works with celebrities and travels the world.

    • 1991:

      Soviet Union falls.

    • 1990:

      Oleg begins looking for Lessya and her family.

    • 1986-1990:

      Oleg’s family and Lessya’s family lose touch during the turmoil as the Soviet Union breaks up. Letters are being sent between them, but not delivered.

    • 1987:

      Lessya’s sister, Lyana, is born in Kazakhstan.

    • 1986:

      Lessya, her mother, Olga, and her father, Vladimir, move to Borovskoe, Kazakhstan, so Olga could care for her mother and stepfather, who were ill, and the family could escape the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Oleg and his family stay in Kiev. Lessya’s father takes a job as a miner in the Ural Mountains.

    • 1983-1986:

      Oleg, whose mother, Valentyna, is Vladimir’s sister, babysits for Lessya when her mother and father are working. Lessya’s mother is working as a nurse, and her father as an ambulance driver.

    • 1983:

      Lessya’s parents, Vladimir and Olga Sennik, are married in the spring in Kiev, Ukraine. Lessya was born in November.