The Science and Spirit of Giants and Dwarfs

"As soon as I step out the door," said Igor Vovkovinskiy, "everything changes."

Vovkovinskiy, 24, is a 7-foot-8-inch giant whose home in Rochester, Minn., was custom-built for his enormous frame. The house has cathedral ceilings and a 9-foot-long bed. Once he steps outside his front door, though, Vovkovinskiy towers above the rest of the world.

He is one of several people profiled in a new series of programs to be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel exploring the worlds of giants and dwarfs and the anatomical engineering that makes them the way they are.

Despite the vast differences in their size, what giants and dwarfs have in common is their unique application of a skill that every human being learns in one way or another: how to adapt to the world around you, regardless of who, what or how big the world thinks you are.

"A lot of children come up and ask me, 'Why are you little? What makes you little?'" said Susie Campbell, a 3-foot-10-inch dwarf. "I just say … 'God made me this way. I am little just like he made you have brown hair and blue eyes.'"

Based on birth records, it is estimated that there are at least 15,000 people with dwarfism in the United States. More than 200 different types of dwarfism have been identified. Campbell has the most common form of dwarfism, achondroplasia.

Campbell's parents and brothers are all average size, and when she was born, in West Texas in 1961, her mother received some sage advice from her grandmother, "Take her home and love her."

The Suscha Syndrome

At home in a suburb of Baltimore, Campbell's family has gone to extraordinary lengths to carry on that philosophy. She and her husband, Mark, adopted a daughter named Suscha from a Russian orphanage, an institution that reminded them that in some places, dwarfism still can mean isolation from the rest of society.

"They brought this little girl in," said Mark Campbell, "and she was looking down at her feet. … She just looked up every once in a while and we both, right at that moment, fell in love."

Suscha is still struggling to pronounce words — her two front teeth are missing — but because of the design of her jaw, her tongue also gets in the way. When she is an adult, her skull will, in fact, grow larger than average. In ordinary adults, fluid produced within the brain helps cushion the brain and protect it from shock. In dwarfs, the opening through which that fluid drains into the spinal column is smaller, causing some of the fluid to back up and the skull to swell. That swelling accounts for the distinctive shape of a dwarf's face.

Once the Campbells returned with her to the United States, they discovered that Suscha had a form of dwarfism that is unknown to doctors, complicated by the fact that she was abandoned by her birth mother and that no family history is available for her. The Campbells brought her to the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., to meet Dr. Charles Scott, one of the world's experts on dwarfism.

"Her thigh bones are very short and they are bowed in a sort of a forward direction," Scott told the National Geographic Channel. "They're sort of like a boomerang."

That means that Suscha has to stand and walk on her toes in a painful, half-crouched position. But surgery, which may be performed in 2008, can help. Her specific type of dwarfism that doctors couldn't identify is now called the Suscha Syndrome.

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