August 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Boston Friends Pray ‘Aloosha’ Can Stay Tiny Chernobyl Victim Has Large Medical Woes

Gloria Negri The Boston Globe
 

His name is Alexei Anatolevich Saponchikov.

That is a big name for a small boy who weighs 40 pounds, stands 38 inches tall and is about to turn 13, but looks 5.

In Belarus, where Alexei has lived in an orphanage for disabled children since he was abandoned on the street by his mother when he was just 11 months old, most names are as long as Russian winters.

But in the Boston suburb of Milton, where Alexei has stolen the hearts of his host family, Daniel and Janet Joyce, and their three young sons, he is simply called “Aloosha.”

Alexei is one of 84 young victims of Chernobyl brought here several weeks ago for medical treatment, rest, and recreation by the Boston-based Chernobyl Children Project.

Alexei, like all the children, was originally to stay only one month. But his medical problems are so big - juvenile arthritis, severe joint deformations, serious dental problems, and many other ailments caused by the steroids he has been on for so long - those who care for him feel he needs at least eight more months here for treatment.

Sometimes Alexei must use a wheelchair because the arthritis has disabled one of his feet.

The Joyces are eager to have him stay. “He’s a sweet little boy who would win your heart,” said 34-year-old Janet Joyce. But two governments’ bureaucracies must still be won over.

Alexei’s physician - Dr. Jane Schaller, pediatrician-in-charge at The Floating Hospital for Children at New England Medical Center - and the Rev. Robert Bowers of St. Agatha Church in East Milton, one of the five area Catholic parishes whose youth groups started the Chernobyl project four years ago, have intervened.

They are seeking permission from the Belarus government and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to give Alexei an eight-month extension. Both agencies have expressed support so far.

Alexei is one of two Chernobyl victims the Joyces hosted this year; Maxcim, 13, suffers from thyroid cancer and has returned home.

So far, the shadow of Alexei’s tragic life seems to have vanished here. He is very different from the sickly, tired, 30-pound little boy the Joyces met at Logan Airport in June.

Since being in the United States, Alexei has gained 10 pounds. He loves chocolate milk and chicken drumsticks. He also loves television. At a Quincy restaurant karoake, he got up and sang a Russian folk song. And on Aug. 27, the Joyces will give Alexei his first birthday party.

Today, Alexei beams whenever he sees Dan Joyce, 38, director of client server engineering with Fidelity Investments. He has bonded with the Joyces’ boys - Dan Jr., 14; Doug, 11; and Ryan, 7.

He’s also grown close to Janet. Alexei “told Janet that she’s his mother and calls her ‘Mama,’ one of his few English words,” Dan Joyce said. “The first gifts he bought here were gifts for Janet.”

Alexei put it simply in a conversation with the translator. Janet, he said, “will always be my mother.”


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