Surgeries allow boy to stand taller

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Metro section on Monday, August 25, 2003)

By Kim Bell

In his self-portrait, young Vladimir “Wolf” Walter uses crayons to draw himself tall and strong, taking up the entire page as he towers over four pet cats.

The boy in the picture has no hump on his back, no slouching lean of someone with severe scoliosis.

Now, after a series of surgeries to correct his spine, Wolf will be walking into the home of his adoptive St. Louis family a straighter boy, 4 inches taller than he was before and with a brighter future than he faced in his homeland of Russia.

Wolf is a 9-year-old boy from an orphanage in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. He has scoliosis and deformed hands with missing fingers, a “special needs” child rarely adopted out by Russia.

The couple who adopted him, Brian Walter and Lynnea Brumbaugh-Walter of St. Louis, brought him to America in November and named him “Wolf,” something reasonably close to his nickname of Vova in Russia.

Not only did he have a new land, a new name, a new language and a new family, but Wolf this summer spent two months at Shriners Hospital for Children in Frontenac as surgeons there began the long task of rebuilding his spine.

“His whole world changed so fast,” said Brumbaugh-Walter, 38. “It’s like he went from planet Earth to Mars with no preparation.”

He is expected to be released from Shriners today.

A perfectly straight spine is said to have a zero-degree curve. The 85-degree curve in Wolf’s spine left him strangely bent, as if he were in a constant lean to the side. Yet he had good balance as he ran and played.

Doctors here say Wolf’s scoliosis could have been life-threatening.

“A person this young, with this severe a curve, it’s not cosmetic – they would die with this condition,” said Dr. Matthew Dobbs, the pediatric orthopedic surgeon who operated on Wolf.

“It starts to affect the lungs and heart,” Dobbs added. “The rate that curve was progressing, he’d probably run into serious lung problems within five years.”

The hospital stay and orthopedic surgeries probably would cost in the six figures elsewhere, but Shriners charges nothing for its services.

The cause of Wolf’s scoliosis is unknown, possibly genetic.

Birth defects left Wolf’s hands deformed. His right arm, about three-quarters length, has two fingers, a short thumb and no elbow. His left arm ends just past the elbow and has an appendage of two fingers stuck together, resembling a hook. Nearly every picture Wolf draws of himself has his hands accurately portrayed.

“He knows he’s different,” Lynnea said. “Sometimes, when I stroke his hands and say, ‘You’re beautiful,’ he’s very shy and quietly says, ‘I like five.'”

Shriners’ medical care was not meant to do anything for Wolf’s hands. He can do almost everything for himself except button buttons. So Wolf’s parents say there is little need to operate.

Recovery at Shriners has been painful, and Wolf’s anger and tantrums have come with more regularity. On the wall near his hospital bed, below the Russian calendar, is a handwritten sign: “I say ‘owie’ for pain or hurt.”

Brian Walter, 36, teaches English and film at Washington University. His wife teaches at the university’s Olin School of Business. In 2000, they adopted a baby girl, Harper, from China. They knew they wanted to adopt again but were in no rush. They figured a few years down the road, they might adopt from Vietnam, Ethiopia or Guatemala.

Their timetable changed when a newsletter arrived from Children’s Hope International, showing an orphan named Vladimir and his colorful artwork.

“He was just joyful,” Brumbaugh-Walter said.

Her husband added, “He was literally beaming, just giving off light.”

The couple were showered with some $14,000 in donations through a fund set up by their church, University United Methodist Church. It went for adoption and travel costs.

Walter, who studied Russian for one semester, was able to ease the transition for Wolf, plus they relied on English-Russian books and friends who are fluent in the language. Two months after arriving, Wolf was fairly adept at speaking English. Now, that’s all he’ll speak.

A bright boy, Wolf sat in a wheelchair Friday at Shriners as his father read aloud from “The Black Stallion.” They had been through the island and the rescue, and were getting close to the match race. Even on codeine, Wolf followed the story closely and chimed in to say “Napoleon,” his favorite horse, whenever it was mentioned.

Children’s Hope International, headquartered in St. Louis, completed 239 Russian adoptions last year and will have close to 300 such adoptions this year.

A mere 5 percent of Children’s Hope adoptions from Russia are considered “special needs,” and those are fairly minor health problems, said Cory Barron of Children’s Hope. Wolf’s adoption is unusual because he is a Russian orphan with a severe health problem.

“It’s rare Russia will adopt those kids out,” Barron said. “That’s why it’s spectacular the Walters were able to get this little boy and give him a great home.”

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