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The Marine And The Orphan
MICHAEL ROSENBERG
August 27, 2012
The stories of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters are remarkable, and if they also prove inspirational, that's fine with them. But they have another narrative they prefer, the one that has brought them together to the brink of Paralympic rowing gold
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August 27, 2012

The Marine And The Orphan

The stories of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters are remarkable, and if they also prove inspirational, that's fine with them. But they have another narrative they prefer, the one that has brought them together to the brink of Paralympic rowing gold

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Sometimes a police officer would knock on the orphanage door and tell everybody to stay inside because the nearby nuclear power plant had a leak. The orphanage was also less than 200 miles from another plant, Chernobyl, site of the most famous nuclear meltdown in history. The warnings were too late for Oksana. As she would find out years later, radiation poisoning had caused her birth defects.

Doctors attempted to lengthen her left leg by affixing pins through surgically fractured bones in the limb. The pins, which protruded from the leg, were attached to a ring-shaped apparatus; every week the doctors would turn the screws on the apparatus, which widened the space between the bones. Eventually, it was believed, the bones would knit. The treatment was not effective, but Oksana tried to embrace the body that her parents had rejected and surgeons could not fix. She called her left leg "my little foot," and occasionally she used its toes to brush her hair.

In Buffalo a single woman named Gay Masters, a speech pathology professor, was looking to adopt. She had wanted a newborn, not a six-year-old, but when a couple who had adopted a Russian child showed her a picture of Oksana, she said, "That's my child." She began making arrangements to bring the girl to the U.S.

At the orphanage Oksana was handed a picture of Gay and told she would live with this woman. But Ukraine, in an effort to minimize child trafficking and other abuses, had suspended foreign adoptions. Workers at the orphanage did not tell Oksana about the moratorium; instead they told her that her new mother did not wish to pick up such a bad girl, a girl who would sneak out to get food when she was supposed to be in bed.

Ukraine's ban was not lifted for nearly two years. When Gay's application was finally approved and she arrived at Oksana's orphanage late one night in January 1997, she found the little girl sleeping in a sweater in the freezing building. She woke Oksana, who looked up and spoke in Ukrainian, "I know who you are. You're my mother. I have a picture."

As they came to know each other, Oksana kept talking about Lainey—so much that Gay asked the orphanage workers who Lainey was. She was told that Lainey was Oksana's best friend. She had gotten sick and died. The adoption facilitator claimed that after Oksana's parents left her in the orphanage, they had two more children, a boy and a girl, and both were healthy. The implication: Oksana's birth defects were a genetic fluke, not the result of radiation poisoning.

As they crossed the Atlantic, Oksana watched the in-flight movie, Fly Away Home. In Buffalo she insisted on sleeping with her mother every night. She tried to act like a happy child, but she did not know how. She laughed wildly, sometimes inappropriately. Once, Oksana ran into the kitchen, hit her head on a table and fell backward three feet. Then she stood up and laughed. She had taught herself not to cry. In Ukraine tears brought beatings.

Doctors had told Gay that her daughter's legs would have to be amputated because they couldn't support her weight, but Gay was reluctant to approve the procedure. "I said, 'I'm not bringing her to a new country with a new language, then cutting off her legs,'" Gay says.

Shortly after Oksana moved to Buffalo, surgeons moved the innermost finger on each hand to where her thumbs should have been. She did not have muscles in her fingers and her hands were scarred from multiple skin grafts. But at least she could use them for such everyday tasks as writing and holding a cup. Gay also eventually consented to having Oksana's left leg amputated. Doctors explained that they would fit her for a prosthetic leg, but an eight-year-old doesn't understand prostheses. Oksana told herself she would get a new, flesh-and-bone leg.

When she woke from surgery, she looked down for her new leg and saw nothing. Her "little foot" was gone. She was angry at the woman who had saved her. Why did Gay ask the doctor to cut off her leg? Wasn't she pretty enough? Oksana went back to the house where she lived with her mother, two cats and her dolls. She gave all her dolls the same name: Lainey.

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