Therapy helping Soviet girl // Olga begins to walk toward brighter future

Published May 27, 1990|Updated July 6, 2006

Hands and arms pressing down on the wide seat of a swing, Olga Leshyova, with a little help, gingerly raised her left knee and set her tiny, pale foot on the floor. Then, up came her body, her right leg curling out from under her until she stood upright. "Beautiful," said Vicki Allen, the physical therapist helping 4-year-old Olga. "Very good."

For Olga, a native of Leningrad, U.S.S.R., raising herself from a kneeling position one leg at a time was just the latest in a series of triumphs.

Soviet doctors had said that Olga would never walk. For three years, Olga's parents, Lilli and Dimitry, listened to those doctors. Then they sought help elsewhere, turning to a national cerebral palsy foundation in the United States. Officials there directed the family to All Children's Hospital, where Olga came in February for a rare operation.

Last week, the child ambled shakily across the room with a walker for short periods. It was the most promising sign she will someday walk, Ms. Allen said.

"She's already (standing) up," Ms. Allen said. "She's actually up sooner than we thought she would be. But there's still a lot more."

The operation that gave Olga a chance at walking was developed for cerebral palsy sufferers whose muscles stiffen and reflexes go awry. The operation, called a selective dorsal rhizotomy, involves cutting certain nerves that cause muscles to stiffen.

Dr. Louis Solomon, who performed the operation Feb. 26, estimates it will be about a year before Olga can walk.

Meanwhile, Olga goes to therapy five days a week with Ms. Allen and an occupational therapist to train her to use her limbs.

Last week, Ms. Allen was working on strengthening Olga's muscles by having her stand, push herself up and walk with assistance.

With her mom standing close by, Olga stood and petted a soft, pink stuffed pig, took several steps with a walker and pulled out a scooter, sat down, placed her feet on a bar at the front and shot off across the floor during a therapy session.

Mrs. Leshyova said she is extremely pleased with the progress her daughter is making.

"She didn't have much idea what the progress would be," said Anatol Glen, who interpreted for Mrs. Leshyova. "But she was expecting something good."

In the little more than three months here, Mrs. Leshyova has seen Olga change physically. The girl once only crawled on her belly and sat improperly with her lower legs back, feet out and torso hunched over. Now she sits with her legs outstretched and sometimes bent in front of her.

But mostly, Mrs. Leshyova has noticed changes based on their experiences here. Both are learning to speak English. And Mickey Mouse, unquestionably an American institution, has become a focal point in the child's life.

"Any time we do something she doesn't like for us to do," Ms. Allen said about Olga, "she cries, "Mickey,' thinking he will come save her.' "

"Very much, I like it," Mrs. Leshyova said directly in English about the change of pace. "I like MTV and VH1, and Olga likes the Disney Channel."

Mrs. Leshyova's favorite television program is Headline News, Glen translated. The news program covers a variety of topics, allowing Mrs. Leshyova to learn a great number of English words. She also enjoys reading U.S. newspapers to keep up with what's going on in the Soviet Union.

Since their arrival here, the Leshyovas have been to Busch Gardens and Walt Disney World and will travel to Los Angeles next week to participate in a national telethon.

Olga is one of six children who have been chosen to participate in the live broadcast of the Children's Miracle Network Television Telethon on June 2 and 3 at Disneyland. Olga's story will be told at midnight June 2 and again at noon June 3.

After seeing Los Angeles, Mrs. Leshyova hopes to see the Grand (she says "Great") Canyon, Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C.

She says she has a bit of anxiety about returning to the Soviet Union. But Mrs. Leshyova said her family is there, her husband Dimitry is there. It is, she said, her home.

"Olga is very pleased here," said Mrs. Leshyova. "She certainly is going to miss this. But she hopes, anyhow, she will be pleased to see the rest of the family."

"She's a 4-year-old," Ms. Allen said about Olga and her understanding of being here. "She's cool. She really is."