Vision of hope for girl, 5, brings a Ukrainian family here

March 25, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

The glint in her left eye wasn't the usual sparkle that can charm anyone doting on a newborn baby. It was a strange glow, an eerie white beam that flashed when light struck the infant's eye in a certain way.

Born in Ukraine just two months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Anna Yaschuk was lucky to have a grandmother who knew not to be enchanted by the phenomenon. An ophthalmologist, she rightly suspected that the glow could be a sign of retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that strikes 1 in 15,000 babies and produces a cottony tumor on the retina.

Now 5, Anna has endured chemotherapy, radiation and the replacement of her cancerous left eye with a glass one. Her family even uprooted itself -- moving from Ivano-Frankovsk to Odessa -- when doctors warned them that radioactivity blowing their way from contaminated Chernobyl could further jeopardize the girl's condition.

And yesterday, having recently completed a 16-day journey across rough seas on a cargo ship carrying cars and steel, Anna was anesthetized at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. A surgeon examined her to decide if anything could be done to restore vision to the girl's failing right eye.

"This is our last hope," Anna's aunt, Alla Lesiuk, said through an interpreter a day earlier at the Ronald McDonald House on West Lexington Street, where the family is staying. "We're afraid that even here it could happen: Deep in our heart we're afraid of a most tragic situation, that she might lose the other eye."

But the outcome was anything but tragic.

After emerging from the operating room, Dr. Irene H. Maumenee said the solution was relatively simple. The radiation therapy given Anna back home was "absolutely" the right treatment but had the common side effect of producing a cataract: a clouding of the lens. So in a 90-minute procedure, Dr. Maumenee removed the girl's lens and replaced it with a clear implant.

The best news was that the radiation treatments appeared to have arrested the cancer.

"The tumor was off to one side," Dr. Maumenee said. "There will always be something in a dormant stage, and it could stay there for years. She will see fine. And she'll get better every day."

Anna's left eye was removed when she was just 2 months old. Despite radiation and chemotherapy treatments to stem the cancer's spread, the disease appeared in the other eye when she was 8 months old. Further radiation treatments held the cancer in check, but a cataract was impairing the girl's vision.

Anna's aunt is a gynecologist and her mother, Lila Yaschuk, a prison doctor. They believe radioactive fallout from nearby Chernobyl may have caused the genetic mutation that spawned Anna's cancer. Although retinoblastoma is known to result from genetic damage, Dr. Maumenee said she doubted the nuclear accident was the cause.

A Japanese study recently found that retinoblastoma rates among the offspring of people who survived the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are no higher than elsewhere, Dr. Maumenee pointed out. But, she cautioned, the study's sample population was probably too small to yield definitive results.

In the midst of their fears about Anna's outcome, her aunt and mother said they were overwhelmed by the hospitality that's engulfed them ever since they set foot on American shores last Thursday in New York.

First, there was the driver who transported the family from New York to Baltimore -- courtesy of a Baltimore shipping agency that took interest in Anna when an employee learned her family had booked passage on a containership to save money.

There's been the comfort of the Ronald McDonald House, where Anna hit it off with children from around the world who communicate through the universal language of stuffed animals, toy cars and games of chase-and-be-chased.

Dr. Maumenee charged nothing for the surgery. And people associated with the shipping agency sprung for $150 so the family could shop amid the bounty of an American grocery store. Somewhat paralyzed by the abundance, the family returned with $6 worth of food.

"No, go back and spend the whole thing. Really," said Tom Betz Jr., an agent with the company that represents the Baltic Shipping line.

Anna's aunt said the family began searching for help abroad last year when Ukrainian doctors said they didn't know what else to do for the girl. The family learned about Dr. Maumenee's expertise from Ukrainian doctors who had met a delegation of American ophthalmologists visiting the Filato Institute, an eye hospital in Odessa. Baltimore has a sister-city relationship with Odessa -- a kinship that brings a flow of visitors in either direction.

Later, the family requested an appointment with Dr. Maumenee. Rather than trusting the mail, they hand-delivered a letter through an entourage from Towson State University that her aunt approached during its stop in Kiev.

Speaking over the soft chatter of children playing around a pool table, Anna's mother and aunt had to laugh Monday at their anxieties about what awaited them in America. Expecting the worst, they lugged pillows, blankets and a bag of canned foods.

Ms. Lesiuk said, "Nowhere have we found so much warmth and friendship as we have in Baltimore."

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