Here is a story I think you Gray Matter readers will enjoy. It concerns a young Ukrainian immigrant who lives in Rochester, Minn. His name is Igor Vovkovinskiy.
Recently, three pairs of shoes, hand-delivered by Georg Wessels of Vreden, Germany, came as a welcome surprise to this 23-year-old who hadn't had shoes that really fit for over three years. But these are no ordinary shoes. The sneakers, oxfords and sandals are all a men's size 26 specially designed to fit the feet of 7-foot-8 Igor. Wessels' company is known, world wide, for making king-size shoes. They make it a part of their business to provide free shoes for the 10 tallest people in the world, complete with personal delivery.
Igor's mother, Svetlana, realized shortly after his birth in 1983, that something was wrong with her baby's growth pattern. By the time he was six months old he weighed 26 pounds. There she was, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, with medical services, as well as her marriage, disintegrating. Doctors discovered a tumor on the child's pituitary gland which had caused his growth to spurt to the size of an NFL linebacker by the time he was seven, but they had neither equipment nor expertise to do anything about it.
At that point Svetlana brought her youngster to the Mayo Clinic where doctors, agreeing to pay the medical costs, treated him to shrink the tumor until they were able to remove it in two operations. The problem, however, was still not solved. Though the tumor was gone, the region in the brain which controls these matters still sends signals to the damaged pituitary to continue producing the growth hormone. Now, at age 23, he is still growing, though much more slowly.
I learned about Igor from a dear friend, Faye Alden, who is a hair dresser in Rochester. This remarkable woman is a story in herself. As she tells it, she was terrified of public speaking until she met Svetlana who was struggling to stay in the U.S. to be near the medical resources necessary for her son's survival. In spite of Faye's stage-fright, she began presenting Igor's story at area churches and civic groups, becoming a veritable fund-raising machine.
Igor's mother was an educated woman in her native Ukraine, but life in the U.S. was a different matter. Faye worked with Mayo employees and others to help Svetlana find employment, learn English, become a citizen, and take courses so she could become a registered nurse at St. Mary's Hospital. Igor completed computer technician training at a community college and is employed by the Mayo Clinic's computer help line. He is able to work only part time for his heart, stressed by pumping blood through his over-sized body, provides him with a restricted amount of energy.
Several years ago a client of Faye's from Chicago, who had connections with Shaquille O'Neal's managers, volunteered to call them. He explained the situation, with heart-warming results, so Igor wore Reeboks custom-made for Shaq for several years until he outgrew them. The Chicagoan even arranged for the "young giant," then in high school, to meet his No. 1 sports hero at a Timberwolves game in Minneapolis.
Somehow, I'm a little disappointed that it was a family-owned foreign firm, not Reebok or any other American company, that stepped in when the need was so obvious. But I am pleased to tell you that the Red Wing Shoe Co., of Red Wing, Minn., has helped out along the way. They reportedly provided special molds and materials, amounting to nearly $5,000, for Wessels' use. So if you can buy what you need from Red Wing instead of Reebok or any of the other "big guys", I suggest you do just that!