After a cancer misdiagnosis that resulted in prolonged radiation exposure, a woman is set to receive free surgery to reconstruct the portion of her jaw tissue that died as a result of the unwarranted treatment.
Lessya Kotelevskaya, 30, was attending a basketball game in her native Kazakhstan when a fellow spectator accidentally fell on top of her, crushing her jaw. Kotelevskaya complained of jaw pain in the weeks that followed, and a biopsy revealed to doctors at the time the undeniable presence of a tumor. They began radiation treatment. But according to her current surgeon, Dr. Jarrod Little, of the University of Louisville, what the doctors actually saw could’ve been nothing more than a benign cyst.
“If you don’t see this often or a pathologist doesn’t know it, very often it can be mistaken for cancer under the microscope,” Little, who is performing the 24-hour million dollar surgery at no cost, told ABC News. What Kotelevskaya ended up with instead was a gauntlet of therapy sessions designed to treat cancer that wasn’t there. Her weight fell to 79 pounds, says her cousin, Oleg Sennik. As a result of the treatment, Kotelevskaya is unable to open her jaw more than a millimeter. Most food slides out the side of her mouth, and the portions that stay inside she has to mash in the only corner of her jaw that functions.
Basically, the radiation killed a large patch of healthy tissue inside Kotelevskaya’s jaw. She has a hole in her check and no jaw bone on one side, according to Little, whose task now is to draw a segment of bone from Kotelevskaya’s fibula, with some skin still attached, and use it as a replacement jawbone. The residual skin will replace the inner portion of her mouth.
Life in the U.S. for Kotelevskaya has been a full reversal from her previous life. When she immigrated to Kentucky in 2013, with her 7-year-old son Erik in tow, she was homeless. Her health was declining rapidly. It had been nearly a decade since her accident, and the one hope she had — little did she know — was Sennik, who fled to Kentucky in 1996 to escape the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, he had been looking for the rest of his family.
After much fruitless searching, Sennik eventually tracked down his cousin, whom he began visiting frequently. He took her to a doctor in Ukraine, who informed her that she didn’t have cancer. In fact, she never did. The hole in her jaw and missing tissue were all a product of a botched diagnosis.
Sennik, a hairdresser in Kentucky, began telling his clients of his cousin’s story. One helpful referral later, and the cousins were in conversation with Little, who upon hearing Kotelevskaya’s story, immediately agreed to do the operation for free. “Plastic surgery is typically associated with cosmetic stuff, and this is the other part of plastics that took 11 years of training after college,” he said to ABC News. “This makes it all worthwhile.”
Little’s generosity and the unexpectedly warm compassion extended by the hospital staff have compelled Kotelevskaya to attend nursing school. Because of what she experienced, Sennik says, she had always feared hospitals. A decade worth of medical failures caused her to reel at the idea of further treatment. But the University of Louisville team restored her faith in the practice, he says. “She is so grateful. She says, ‘Oh my God, I would love to work as a nurse to help people.’ The hospital has totally changed her mind.”