The Little Boy Who Remembered Me

When I first entered the bedridden ward at Kalinovka in Ukraine, I saw cribs filled with children. Normally in America, you associate cribs with babies… but here I saw 8 year olds and even teenagers. You didn’t hear the sweet sound of children’s voices, but rather just moans. Moans, shrieks, banging. Banging a leg, a head, or an arm against the sides of the crib.

As I walked around surveying the children, I realize they all start to look the same. Shaved head and a dazed look. Even when you make eye contact with the child, he doesn’t seem to look back. The child just stares. That’s what I like to refer to as the “institutional stare.”

Children who are not so fragile extend their arms so that you can pick them up and hold them. If I pick up a child, they often hold onto me for fear I will put them down. They grasp at my hair, pull my necklace, or pull down on my lip. Sometimes they even slap, scratch or bite me.

They don’t react to pain. They’re immune to it. For some, causing pain to themselves is the only activity they have. The children who are more responsive, laugh or smile when they get a reaction from hitting me. So they hit me again. The other children, who are less interactive, just hit themselves.

Children with conditions like Cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol syndrome and spina bifida fill the room.

One child had a huge sack of skin attached to his head. When I asked if it could be removed, I was told it was part of the child’s brain.

Another child rocks back and forth and even as I approach her, she doesn’t notice me at all. It’s as if I don’t exist. I have to stroke her head for her to stop moving and to enjoy the tenderness of human touch.

Then, there was the sweet boy with sad eyes. He was bundled up in his crib so he could not move at all. He was so pale and didn’t seem to be social. When I asked why his arms were tied, I was told “it was so he wouldn’t hit himself.”

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I didn’t question the practice of tying children because at the time, I had never seen such conditions in mental institutions. It was like walking into another world where tiny humans didn’t seem so human at all.

I came to spend some time with this little boy. He never smiled. He just cried or whined. When he wasn’t tied, he would hit his chin, over and over, until his chin burst open. I called the nurse, and he was removed from his crib, cleaned up and was returned with a green mark* on his booboo. (*the green version of mercurochrome for us Americans.) To prevent him hitting himself again, he was bound again.

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I pitied this child, but he was no different than all the others. They all suffered from greatest malady on earth: loneliness.

Nearly a year after seeing Igor, I was informed that he required surgery and there was a great chance he would die.

Maya’s Hope was still small and didn’t have “emergency” funds. With my personal Facebook friends, we raised $1500 within a week to cover Igor’s medical bills.

My partner in Ukraine wrote to me:

“But Maya, you should know the hard reality this doctor, who will operate on Igor, is the best children’s neurosurgeon in our region, but many kids die after his operations. We don’t like them, to be honest, we don’t trust him.

He operated on Nadya last year and after people in Kalinovka say, that we killed her.

I was really afraid at the hospital, that Igor would die before they let me free. So I would prefer to bring him to Kiev after he has his first shunt changed.

Just you should know, there is a risk, a big risk for Igor, hopefully he will survive.

I know, you would ask – why we don’t bring him to Kiev right now, the answer is rather easy – he is “state” child and we have no serious reasons to say, that they should do something other and I can’t control his new orphanage as much as I do it in Kalinovka, so we just can pray for him and hopefully it will be fine with your help, with people’s praying.

Believe in wonder, but know the truth, Maya…



With that, I just asked people to keep Igor in their prayers and thoughts. There was only one doctor who could save Igor, and I had to believe that Igor would fight through it.

And he did. He made it.

Mariya and I believed in wonder.


Once we got over the first operation, we had more hurdles:

“Igor will be operated on tomorrow again and they will just check, what could be wrong with his shunt, that he is feeling sick all the time last weeks.

His doctor told me, that Igor’s brain is dead, but he could have better life, if people would take care about him and if they would feed him better.

I think, we should start fundraising for his adoption, before he died from not much care at different orphanages…”

I refused to believe what the doctor said. It wasn’t the first time that I disagreed with a diagnosis, but all I could do was come up with a solution.

With my partner, we decided to hire a caregiver to help provide specialized care for Igor IF he made it through the next operation.

And so it happened. He made it, and we hired Artem, the man who became Igor’s best friend. With Artem’s help, Igor learned how to eat independently, walk, and eventually run. The child who spent the first 7 years of his life in a crib, learned to become a normal child.



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He could not speak, but he would make sounds and would express himself with certain noises and “ha, ha, ha” sounds. He was even quite mischievous, only to win the full attention of his caregiver.

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With the war waging in Ukraine, I was unable to do my annual visit. Finally in December 2015, I went to find Igor.

I went to visit his orphanage where we provide help, but it became clear it would not be any easy visit. Rules for visits had changed and despite all of our preparations and announcing our visit in advance, they refused to let us see the children.

The administrator had asked how long was I in Ukraine and I said I would leave in a few days. This meant there was no option to return.

Since I have known the administrator and have met with her many times, I apologized for any misunderstanding and thanked her for all that she has done over the years. I expressed that we were grateful for her time. With a smile on her face, she proposed that we see the children, but only at playtime.

And no photos.

I said, “No problem. We are grateful to see the children.”

We were taken outside to see the children playing. All bundled up, they walked around holding hands. The children I once used to play with at Kalinovka had grown up and some who could not walk were now walking.

There was one group we hadn’t seen, Igor’s group. We asked if we could see Igor and the other boys. They agreed to let us see Igor and Sergei, but they would bring them out to us. We couldn’t visit in their room.

I sat on a couch waiting for them to bring them out.

Sergei was nervous and we were told he doesn’t like crowds of people. It was also almost lunch time and he was impatient to eat. He stayed with his nurse.

Igor, on the other hand, came out from his ward and was holding the hand of a nurse. Although I had seen videos of him walking, it seemed like the most miraculous thing to see him walking. My heart was bursting with joy.

I remained seated and Igor walks right up to me. I hugged him tightly and kissed him. He then turned around to sit on my lap. I held him and he didn’t fidget. Sometimes, he would turn his head to look at me, and he made a sly little smile. I kept my arms around him and when I moved them slightly, he held my hands as to indicate he wanted me to hold him tighter.

I cherished those moments and knew time would soon be over. So I proposed to Igor he should show me his skills.

I got up, took Igor’s hand and he headed for a hallway. Igor led the way and kept going faster. The nurses walked with me and Igor wanted to run. Finally at the end of the hallway, there were steps. I knew time was up, and so I motioned to Igor we had to turn around. Instead, he wanted to go down the steps. Finally the nurse picked up Igor, and it was time for him to go back to his ward.

I don’t have photos or videos of this visit, but I cannot forget the look of trust and comfort in Igor’s eyes and he approached me to sit on my lap.

I like to think that he remembered me or that he knew how much I love him. He may not remember me at all from holding him years before at Kalinovka.

Like all the children I make a promise to, I won’t give up on Igor. And one day, I hope that I will see him in the states with a mother who can hold him in her lap and kiss him on his head and that he will never suffer from loneliness ever again.

By Maya Rowencak