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Russian Girl's Skin Grafts Also Take Toll on Mother

August 20, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A 3-year-old Russian girl has returned to the South Bay for a second round of operations to free her from a disfiguring and potentially fatal affliction. But the struggle to treat the girl in the United States has caused her mother to be ostracized by Russian neighbors and demoted at the orphanage where she works, the mother says.

"It has been very difficult," Roza Yagudina, 37, said this week as she waited for her daughter to be admitted to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Carson. "But I must do this for my daughter."

Yagudina's daughter, Eleanor Baranova, has been afflicted since birth with a giant hairy nevus, a furry mole that covered most of her chest and back and has a high likelihood of becoming cancerous. A resident of Zelanadolsk, a town in the semi-autonomous Russian state of Tatarstan, about 350 miles east of Moscow, Yagudina had been told by Russian doctors that there was nothing they could do to help her daughter. In the United States and other Western countries, however, the removal of such giant moles is a relatively simple procedure.

Last year Dr. Wayne McKinny, a retired Palm Springs pediatrician, met Eleanor while visiting the orphanage where her mother was director. With the help of Ted Werner--a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and former international relief worker--and others, McKinny raised money and obtained travel documents to bring Eleanor to Los Angeles last fall to begin removing the mole.

Skin grafts from unaffected parts of Eleanor's body are used to cover areas from which the mole is surgically removed. A total of about six operations are required, with lengthy recovery periods between each operation.

Dr. Malcolm Lesavoy, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Harbor-UCLA, is performing the surgery free. Hospital costs, travel and living expenses for Eleanor and her mother are being paid by McKinny and with donations.

Eleanor and her mother first arrived in Southern California in October, and the girl underwent three operations over five months. Yagudina remained here with her, spending long hours at the hospital during the periods of surgery and while her daughter was an outpatient. Mother and daughter then returned to Tatarstan in March for an extended recovery, planning to return to the United States later for the final series of operations.

Yagudina says that is when her troubles began.

"My family, my husband and my (teen-aged) daughter were very happy to see us," said Yagudina, who spoke no English during her first stay in the United States but now speaks very passable English.

But she said she received a hostile reception from other Zelanadolsk residents, some of whom had routinely referred to Eleanor as "the monster." She was asked how much money she had made by parading her disfigured daughter in America, and how many cars or TV sets she had received. She was shunned by some, openly criticized by others.

Meanwhile, her boss, the head of the state orphanage system, criticized her for being away from work too long, this despite the Russian equivalent of a "family leave law" that allows a mother to take six months unpaid time off from work to care for an ill child. Yagudina was demoted from her position as director of the orphanage and her pay was cut from the equivalent of $32 a month to $20.

"My boss did not understand that Eleanor needed help," Yagudina said. "And some people were jealous that I had gone to America."

"This is very typical," said Emma Sigal, a Russian emigre to Los Angeles who befriended Yagudina during her previous visit. "These are people who grew up in a country where no one was allowed to travel, and they are envious. They didn't understand that (Yagudina) didn't see anything in America except a hospital."

Despite the recent changes in the former Soviet Union, Sigal said, people's attitudes toward America, particularly in remote areas such as Tatarstan, remain tinged with suspicion and envy.

"It is easy to change governments," Sigal said. "But it is hard to change people's ideas."

Although Yagudina was told she would lose her job if she returned to the United States, she brought Eleanor back to the South Bay last week for the second series of operations, the first of which is scheduled for next week. She plans to return to Russia with Eleanor in January.

"My boss said if I go back to America I don't have a job," Yagudina said. "But I must come back. For Eleanor."

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