Ihor Lakatosh struggles to describe his life before the surgeries, when his severe burns went untreated for years in his native Ukraine, leaving him with one arm fused to his body, unable to walk and abandoned by his mother.
The 11-year-old boy, however, smiles widely and repeatedly makes the sign of the cross when he describes how he feels now, after a series of surgeries and physical therapy at a Boston charity hospital. "Thank you I can walk. Thank you I can walk. Thank you Lord, I can walk," he said recently through an interpreter.
Ihor returned to Boston early this year for a second round of procedures, and has been spending time showing off his newfound ability to walk, take off his jacket and climb onto a bed.
No one knows the details surrounding the fire that burned 30 percent of Ihor's body when he was about three years old. He was severely malnourished and unable to walk or bend his arms when neighbors in Lviv, Ukraine, urged his mother to take him to a hospital in 2011, doctors said. She did, and never came back.
The hospital provided minor care but couldn't pay for extensive treatment of Ihor. Staff there thought he was mentally impaired and took him to a special orphanage for children with cerebral palsy.
The orphanage director contacted a Ukrainian burn physician, who got in touch with Boston-based anesthesiologist Dr. Gennadiy Fuzaylov and sent him a photo of the boy. Fuzaylov and plastic surgeon Dr. Daniel Driscoll run a nonprofit organization, Doctors Collaborating to Help Children, which works to improve medical care for children in various countries. Through the organization, they brought Ihor to Boston's Shriners Hospital for Children two years ago. The philanthropic hospital specializes in severe burns.
He was about 8 or 9 years old when he arrived and weighed less than 30 pounds, half the average weight for a boy his age. The boy hadn't walked since he was burned.
"His initial surgery was done to bring his arm away from his body where it had completely scarred to his torso. That was a big one," Driscoll said. Other operations gave Ihor the ability to bend his knees and each was followed by extensive physical therapy to straighten elbows, shoulders and legs. Then more surgeries were added to refine Ihor's progress.
Physicians also struggled to figure out why the boy wasn't eating properly, until they discovered 14 rotten teeth that they had to extract, Fuzaylov said. Doctors also determined that Ihor wasn't mentally impaired at all; he simply had never been to school and was unable to hold a pencil. The fact that he spent crucial formative years with mentally impaired children also undermined his development, doctors said.
Ihor was sent back to the orphanage in Ukraine after his first set of surgeries and will return there next month, after this latest round of treatment.
The western Ukraine region where the orphanage is located has not been affected by turmoil engulfing eastern parts of the former Soviet republic. Fuzaylov, who is also Ukrainian, said the charity is not worried about Ihor's safety.
Occupational therapist Katherine Hartigan said she is impressed by Ihor's determination to fight through pain and frustration.
"Looking at him where he was two years ago and now, the really independent person he is, it's amazing. It's absolutely amazing," Hartigan said after a recent therapy session.
Ihor also returned to the operating room, where Driscoll and another physician worked on a scar on his left cheek that made it difficult for the boy to open his mouth. They also operated on some of his bothersome scars.
As for his future, Ihor remains up for adoption in Ukraine. But for now, he is focused on enjoying his new life in his improved body, relishing his favorite food (chicken) and trying to entertain just about everyone around him. The painful surgeries and therapies have not diminished Ihor's enthusiasm to reclaim his childhood.
"I can do everything now. I can go to school ... I can go outside and play. I can eat by myself. I can go home and do my homework. I can go to bed by myself," he said through an interpreter. "I can do everything by myself. I can live a life now."