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The Long Way Home

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On a warm summer night this past June, seven days after undergoing major surgery to help correct a congenital birth defect, 6-year-old Olga Podshivalova was overjoyed to be back home with her family in Lemon Grove, Calif. But in the midst of the celebration, as she gingerly returned hugs from her six brothers and sisters and played with her pet German shepherd in the backyard, Olga’s mother, Holly Hedgecock, was replaying a far different scene in her mind.

Hours before, as Olga was getting ready to leave her room at San Diego Children’s Hospital, the sandy-haired little girl had looked around at the puppets, stuffed animals and toys she had been given by family and staff members and dissolved into tears. For one apprehensive moment, it seemed as if she might not want to go home. “She probably thought she would have to leave all her things behind,” says her mother. “And that brought back painful memories.”

To appreciate Olga’s hesitation is to understand her remarkable journey. Just three months before, this little girl—born with a rare condition known as organ extrophy, in which part of her bladder grew outside of her body—was living with 60 other needy children in an orphanage in a remote province just west of Siberia, given up by parents she no longer remembered. But that was before a letter from a compassionate Russian doctor set off a chain of events that would transform Olga’s life—and the lives of those around her.

When news of the little girl’s sorry plight reached around the globe last Jan. 6 to the home of Holly and Greg Hedgecock in suburban San Diego, it seemed to all concerned like something of a miracle. Not only were the Hedgecocks old hands at adoption (their modest four-bedroom rental house was already home to five adopted children and a 19-month-old girl in their temporary care), but Holly herself had been born with a deformity similar to the one afflicting Olga. When social worker Jody Sciortino made her initial phone call to the Hedgecocks to see if they might want to take Olga, their reaction was immediate. “Holly’s first response,” says Sciortino, “was ‘God must have sent her to us.’ ”

No one knows how old Olga was when she first understood that she was different from other children. Born into a Russian family unable to care for her, she arrived as an infant at a bleak orphanage building in the industrial city of Serov and, almost from the time she first spoke, began pestering doctors with the question, “Can’t you fix my body?”

Realizing that the little girl’s chances for such highly specialized corrective surgery were almost nil in Russia, the orphanage’s head doctor, Larissa Papulova, last January contacted Nina Kostina, cofounder of the Frank Foundation, a six-year-old Washington, D.C., child-welfare group that helps arrange international adoptions. “[Olga] wants very much to be like other children,” wrote Papulova. “If anything can be done, we are asking you for the possible surgery, rehabilitation and plastic surgery.”

Three days later the Frank Foundation contacted one of its affiliates, the Victoria Adoption Center in Raleigh, N.C., where Sciortino, 45, who knew of the Hedgecocks through a family friend and was aware of Holly’s medical history, immediately made a phone call. “I didn’t have to think about it very long,” says Holly, 34, who has undergone seven corrective surgeries for her own condition, as well as a hysterectomy 12 years ago for an unrelated cystic tumor. “Jody told me no one else even wanted to look at Olga’s file because of her special medical needs’. But Greg and I feel that any child brought in our path will never be turned away.”

There were financial considerations for the couple, who run a part-time window-cleaning business and receive financial help in caring for their brood from family, friends and the Horizon Christian Fellowship Church. But when Dr. George Kaplan, 62, a well-known San Diego pediatric urologist, agreed to perform the rare surgery without charge, “that was what really got the ball rolling,” says Greg, 38, a high school coach and social-studies teacher. “After that, everything started coming together.”

On March 25, escorted by Foundation staff photographer Darcy Kiefel, Olga arrived at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field airport carrying her few belongings: clothes, a doll and a photo scrap-book sent to her by the Hedgecocks. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t look like strangers,” explains Holly. In fact, “Olga’s first word off the plane,” says Greg, “was ‘Papa.’ ”

That day, after a pizza party with her new siblings (Nicole, 11, Steven, 10, Peter, 9, Hannah, 7, Andrew, 3, and Keshia, 1½), Olga, who had never before seen a television or ridden in a car, began the long process of acculturation. “That first day she really freaked out over fruit,” says Greg. “She must have gone to the refrigerator a hundred times just to look at the bananas and apples.”

“Within days Olga had learned all six of her brothers’ and sisters’ names, but she insisted on calling Holly mamotchka. When Yulia Dutton, 25, a Russian émigré volunteering as Olga’s interpreter, told Holly that the word means “sweet, precious mother,” Holly started to cry. “That’s when I really knew that Olga had found a new home here.”

Not every step would be so easy. Olga “began to act out a little and got more aggressive,” says Holly, remembering how, when she dropped off the other kids at their weekly Bible class one afternoon, Olga, thinking her mother was abandoning them, suddenly panicked. “It was a very tough scene,” says Holly. “Olga was angry and wouldn’t even look at me.” Only when Holly and Olga returned to pick up her siblings did the girl finally brighten, rolling down her window and, in her thick Russian accent, calling out their names.

Social adjustments weren’t the only problems she faced. On April 22, after a severe kidney infection landed her in the hospital, Dr. Kaplan decided that Olga, whose bladder had been removed during an operation in Russia when she was a baby, was now old enough for the first of what will be several operations in the coming years. The initial surgery “won’t be a permanent solution, but it will prevent her from getting any more infections,” said Dr. Kaplan, noting that Olga, at 3’4″ and 35 lbs., was small for her age. The procedure, he explained, will help clear her system of toxins and “allow her to stabilize and grow.” Later, “we’ll construct a urine reservoir inside so she can empty herself more normally.” In the meantime, Olga, incontinent due to her condition, will be fitted with a urostomy bag to eliminate her need for diapers.

On the morning of Monday, June 22, clutching a stuffed raccoon and sucking her thumb, Olga checked into room 2246 at San Diego Children’s Hospital. Peering at a picture of her new family that Holly had placed on her nightstand, she rattled off each sibling’s name and then, in a near-daily ritual, studied a video of her sister Nicole at a dance recital. Says Holly: “It seems to comfort her.”

The next morning at 9 a.m., surrounded by family, including Holly’s mother, Drue Anderson, 59, an executive secretary from nearby Leucadia, Olga was wheeled into surgery. “This all brings back a lot of memories for me, and they aren’t very good ones,” says Anderson, recalling her own daughter’s reconstructive operations. “I was heartbroken when Holly learned she couldn’t have her own children. But seeing Olga with Holly, I know now that it happened for a reason.”

Four hours later, pale and groggy, Olga emerged from the surgical suite on a gurney. “She’s a strong little girl, obviously,” Dr. Kaplan said, pronouncing the procedure a success. Within days, Olga, who had been expected to be hospitalized for two weeks, was bouncing on her bed and asking nurses for more ice cream. But during a short walk around the hospital, she fell suddenly somber when a 6-year-old girl rode up on a tricycle, took one look at Olga’s urostomy bag and shouted out, “Ooh! What’s wrong with you?”

Still, Olga seemed to take her new apparatus in stride. When her bag fell onto the floor at the dinner table her first night home, she broke everyone up by announcing with a giggle, “Mommy, I’m leaking!”

Olga’s prognosis for a full and normal life is now excellent, says Dr. Kaplan, and there is even hope that one day she may be able to have children of her own. In the meantime, six months after she first set foot in the U.S., she has grown increasingly close to her new brothers and sisters.

They now call the family pet “Sobaka” (Russian for dog), while she happily chatters in English: “My name is Olga,” “I am 6,” and “I go outside.” In fact she seldom speaks her native language at all anymore, and her accent has faded in the same way that her once sickly pallor has given way to a California tan.

Which, for now, leaves just one technical hurdle in her path. Later this month, when her medical visa expires, Holly and Greg will return with Olga to her hometown of Serov to finalize her permanent adoption. “She tells me she’d like to go back to the orphanage just one more time,” Dutton reports, “to say goodbye to everyone. And to show off her new mommy and daddy.”

There is no reason to believe that such a thing could not happen. After all, little Olga has already been granted two wishes. “She got her body fixed,” says Sciortino. “And she got a family.”

Susan Schindehette

Jamie Reno in San Diego