The Science and Spirit of Giants and Dwarfs

The extraordinary spirit that helps the tallest and smallest adapt to life.

July 26, 2007 — -- "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.

'Like Any Other Family'

Joshua Campbell is another story. The Campbells' 9-year-old biological son is not a dwarf and already towers over his mother. Joshua is a boy of average height who has absorbed the family's unusual diversity in his own way.

"I reach things for my mother," he said. "At the grocery store, it gets really important."

He is quick to explain to his classmates why his parents are different. "They were made by God and I love them," he said. "That's what I tell the little kids."

Mark Campbell completes this remarkable family portrait. He is a systems analyst with the Social Security Administration and has still another, much rarer, type of dwarfism called hypochondroplasia.

At 4 feet, 7 inches, he is taller than most dwarfs. His body proportions are closer to an average human, but his arms are disproportionately short. He is beginning a project to lower the kitchen counters in the family's suburban home, but otherwise, the Campbells have had to do little to adapt their house to their various sizes and strengths.

Height simply doesn't enter into the equation, said Susie Campbell when asked what makes her family — with four such physically distinctive members — unique.

"We are a family with a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. We laugh, we have fun together. … We are just like any other family. No different."

The Tallest Human Beings on Earth

While dwarfism stems from a genetic mutation, the most familiar types of gigantism are created by runaway activity in a pea-size gland that lies behind the nasal cavity at the base of the brain — the pituitary, which releases growth hormones.

When Vovkovinskiy was 3 years old, he already was nearly 5 feet tall. Doctors discovered a tumor in his pituitary that was causing his growth spurts.

At the age of 7, Vovkovinskiy came to the United States from Ukraine to receive medical treatment in an attempt to control his growth. His pituitary was flooding his system with growth hormones and, in turn, triggering other hormones that caused his bones to grow longer and longer. Those chemical surges are what create pituitary giants, who are the tallest human beings on Earth.

Surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., tried to take out the pituitary tumor, but it was embedded too deeply for a complete removal. Vovkovinskiy kept growing. At 7 feet, 8 inches, he is only an inch shorter than the Mongolian herdsman identified by the 2007 Guinness World Records as the tallest man on Earth, Bao Xishun (who gained worldwide attention in July when he married a 5-foot-6-inch saleswoman). When the new Guinness World Records come out next month, Leonid Stadnyk from the Ukraine will be recognized as the world's tallest living man, at 8 feet, 5.5 inches.

Vovkovinskiy wears a size 25, 10-wide shoe.

"I'm having a terrible time finding a pair of shoes that's comfortable and fits me right," he said. "My feet have wounds on them and they're not going to heal anytime soon unless I get a good pair of shoes."

Vovkovinskiy is a popular figure with children, and friends say he has a heart of gold. By any standard, it is a very large heart. According to the National Geographic Channel, it weighs one-and-a-third pounds — double the size of an average person — and pumps more than a half cup of blood with each stroke.

Vovkovinskiy reached his current height at the age of 21. When a pituitary giant reaches puberty, hormones are released that signal the body to stop growing.

'Nothing Surprises Me'

Sandy Allen has survived well beyond her own expectations. She recently celebrated her 52nd birthday and, at 7 feet, 7 inches, she is still listed by the Guinness book as the tallest woman in the world. But her legs can no longer support her 420-pound body.

Allen lives in a nursing home in Shelbyville, Ind. Friends help transport her around town in a van that was purchased with donations to a local fund.

Allen's sense of humor more than matches her size.

"I've been asked everything from how's your sex life to how do you sit on the toilet," she said with a laugh. "So nothing surprises me."

She is an extreme fan of the Indiana Pacers basketball team, which has supplied her with shoes and a bed, among other personal items. When the Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal heard about her, he sent her shoes and clothes.

O'Neal would be six inches shorter than Allen if they stood side by side. He is also 95 pounds lighter — the height of basketball players is typically due to "familial tall stature," or genes they inherit from one of their parents.

After studying the extensive information compiled for the National Geographic Channel specials, we wondered whether there were things that giants and dwarfs have in common. We arranged a meeting between Susie Campbell and Sandy Allen to offer them a chance to swap stories.

Predictably, both learned early in life to cope with the reactions of others.

"I understand why people do a double-take when they see me," said Allen. "They've probably never seen anyone as big as I am so I understand that. But some people go out of their way to make jacka--es of themselves … and those are the people I learned a long time ago to feel sorry for."

According to Campbell, she no longer sees such reactions as frequently. "Back in the '60s and '70s when I was growing up, yes, I did see it a lot. And I think I was more aware of it, too, being a young child. The older I became, I realized I can't let that bother me. … If I take time out to notice a person laughing, I've taken time out of my day and given it to them."

'I Like My Life'

Allen was already 6 feet, 3 inches tall by the age of 10. She remembers her adolescence, during which she grew to 7 feet 7 inches, as a particularly trying time.

"In high school, I had two girls that were my friends. And that was it. The rest of them wouldn't have anything to do with me. I was too different. I was the local freak."

Campbell said she didn't have much experience dating in high school, but she did have an organization — Little People of America. "I got to go the national conference once a year. And that was my dating time, dancing with someone my own size and kind."

Allen has dated since high school. "I have encountered a lot of men that are average in size that are interested in tall women. Now people ask me if I'm married. And I tell them I never got married because my ring finger is a size 16 and I couldn't found a sucker rich enough to put a diamond that size on my hand. But I guess I just wasn't interested in getting married. I was happy living independently."

Personal independence is a goal shared by people of every size, and Allen and Campbell both went about it in her own way. But both acknowledged that learning how to ask for and accept help was just as important.

"There were times when I tried to climb the shelves of grocery stores," said Campbell. "I don't do that anymore. I will ask somebody, 'Could you get that down for me, please?'"

One lasting impression these two women leave is the reservoir of good humor they maintain in relating to other people. They are open and unashamed, and tolerant of questions no matter how many times they have heard them and answered them.

Because of her circumstance, "I think I care more about people," Allen said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather be a giver than a taker. I try to make a joke out of things. … It's a lot easier to laugh than to cry, I think. Crying — sometimes it'll help release some emotions, but I'd rather laugh."

"You know the old saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?" Campbell said. "I see that she does it. It's evident right there."

"I like my life the way it is," Allen said. "Getting in the Guinness Book of Records really changed my life. It has given me the opportunity to travel all over the world, see places I would only have dreamed of … and it sort of brought me out of my shell."

"I don't blame God for making me this way," Allen said. "I'm very proud of being tall. And what I try to do — if I can help even one person in my lifetime with their attitude toward life, then it's all worth it."

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