Story transcripts

Walking Tall

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Phil Goyen

We all want to fit in. That's just the way we're wired. But for the young man you’ll meet on Sunday night, blending into the crowd is an impossible dream.

Igor is dangerously tall — 8 foot — and getting bigger by the day.

While the first thing you notice about Igor is undoubtedly his height, spend some time with him and you realise he's also charming, funny, complex and heartbreakingly lonely.

He also has the biggest smile you’ll ever see — you just have to find a way to coax it out of him.

Click here to follow Igor on twitter: @Igor2tall

Photos: See more of our time with Igor here

Full transcript:

STORY – MICHAEL USHER: Here in Midwest America, life is quiet, and nothing much stands out - unless you’re this man. What is your shoe size?

IGOR: I don’t know - nobody has ever been able to tell me.

MICHAEL USHER: They’re off the chart?

IGOR: Yes.

MICHAEL USHER: And exactly how tall are you?

IGOR: Seven feet and 8.33 inches tall.

MICHAEL USHER: Just shy of eight foot.

IGOR: Yes.

MICHAEL USHER: Look, where am I to you? I’m just on six foot here, and I’ve got to tell you, on first meeting, you’re overwhelming. You are tall!

IGOR: That’s what most people tell me.

MICHAEL USHER: At 29, Igor Vovkovinskiy is America’s tallest man - a record he’s proud of, but would rather not have.

IGOR: Looking at the world from my height, it’s a different experience every day. I always have to be thinking about am I endangering my life, nothing’s built for my size, so everything is a challenge.

MICHAEL USHER: Except for a couple of things. There must be one upside, it’d be handy for cleaning. You’d see all the dust and dirt up there, wouldn’t you?

IGOR: Yes, but I don’t know. I don’t like cleaning very much.

MICHAEL USHER: And getting President Barack Obama’s attention in a crowd is easy. Now he’s a tall man too, but have a look at you compared to him. But when I spend time with this gentle giant, I realise the difficulties outweigh the benefits. This is where you really have to be careful, don’t you?

IGOR: The sprinklers -

MICHAEL USHER: Simply moving through a hotel for our interview is like manoeuvring through an obstacle course. So do you ever go into places where you don’t fit - the roof is too low?

IGOR: Yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: That could be hard.

IGOR: Sometimes you don't have a choice.

MICHAEL USHER: But his biggest challenge is not what’s around him - it’s what’s inside him. Igor is a medical mystery, because he keeps on growing. And saving him is now a race against time. Does he have a projected lifespan?

GREG: This is so unique that we don’t know. We simply don’t. Medical science simply doesn’t know what his lifespan is capable of being.

MICHAEL USHER: From the second he came into this world, in Ukraine, Igor was - well - big. And there was no baby growth chart that could keep up with him. Here he is, being held by mum Svetlana, when he was one year old.

SVETLANA: He was born big - like almost 11 pounds. Everyone was happy, in all countries, the bigger baby is, happier parents. By the age of one year old, he was the size of a three year old, so then I was very concerned.

MICHAEL USHER: By the time he was six, Igor was a staggering six feet tall.

SVETLANA: First five, six years, I thought that was terrible, heavy load, and I don’t know if I can do it. I learned that mine is not heavy at all.

MICHAEL USHER: Do you think that Igor was a gift to you?

SVETLANA: Yeah.

IGOR: Years in middle school and high school I would hit my head three or four times a day. And I don’t know why - it’s not like I would forget how tall I am, it’s just there’s a lot of people around, and I get distracted and I stop paying attention and smack my head on the wall, or I hit an exit sign, and sometimes I’ve broken things, but that’s the way life’s been.

MICHAEL USHER: And life has been testing for Igor and his mum. From very early on, Svetlana knew, deep in her heart, her boy needed help. She began a medical quest to explain his mysterious growth, and finally doctors discovered the cause - a very rare tumor buried deep in his brain. When you found out it was a tumor, did that explain things for you?

SVETLANA: No, at that time when he had that CT and doctor came after CT – neurosurgeon - and he told that he got a tumor, I suffer minor heart attack.

MICHAEL USHER: What did you fear the most?

SVETLANA: That he will die.

MICHAEL USHER: Igor’s tumor was pushing on his pituitary gland, causing it to secrete abnormal levels of growth hormone. The only way to stop him growing was to remove the tumor, but it’s highly risky surgery, and doctors in Ukraine wouldn’t operate. Worried he would die, Igor and his mum wrote to the renowned Mayo Clinic in America, appealing to specialists there to save his life.

IGOR: We initially thought we were only coming to the United States for a month – so we never ever planned on staying here.

MICHAEL USHER: Unfortunately, American surgeons couldn’t remove all of the tumor. Medication only available in America was the only way to slow his body down. Dr. Greg Garrison is Igor’s doctor, and he knows that tumor like an old enemy.

GREG: Unfortunately it’s in a location that makes it impossible to completely eliminate the tumor for him, which means that it continues to secrete growth hormone, and he continues to grow.

MICHAEL USHER: Will he ever stop growing?

GREG: It’s unlikely that he’ll ever stop growing. We’re using medications to try and slow the effects of that growth hormone down for him, and to suppress that pituitary gland as much as we can, but unfortunately yes, he continues to add height and he continues to add weight.

IGOR: Come on in.

MICHAEL USHER: Thank you very much.

IGOR: So as you can see our doors in the house are made to be eight feet tall.

MICHAEL USHER: When you’re nearly eight feet high, the comforts of home are different to most. This place was custom-built for Igor.

IGOR: We have what they call cathedral ceilings, because we want it to be able to feel comfortable at all times, so that I’m able to stretch and get dressed without constantly hitting my fists on the ceiling.

MICHAEL USHER: Even his couch is hand-made to accommodate his comfort, and make me feel like a hobbit. I see what you mean - like it’s a perfect height for you, and I’ve got to jump up on it. My feet don’t hit the ground there. And if Igor’s size didn’t need reinforcing, here’s his favourite comparison. God, I don’t even come up to your first knuckle there. At all. Tell you what, when you high-five someone you must do some damage. But while this giant enjoys sizing up and showing off his castle, the reality of Igor’s life is anything but a fairytale.

IGOR: This is my prison bunk, as they call it, because for two and a half years almost I had to basically spend all day either on the couch or on my bed.

MICHAEL USHER: The pain is shocking, especially in his feet. Does it help to move around sometimes?

IGOR: I need to kind of stretch, stretch my leg. Sometimes I have pain that’s so severe, in my head I have a picture of a truck that keeps running over my leg – sometimes three or four hours at a time. It’s hard to breathe, I see black spots, my heart starts hurting. There have been weeks where I basically don’t get off the couch.

MICHAEL USHER: Doctor, this is one of Igor’s X-rays - the left leg that gives him so much pain. What is causing all of that pain here?

GREG: He had had a number of surgeries on that leg, and actually you can see some of the holes left from some of the pins that he’s had placed in his leg.

MICHAEL USHER: Gee, all the way up, yeah.

GREG: All the way up. The reason for this particular surgery was to offload parts of his foot that were getting pressure ulcers, and as a result, the surgeons wished to reshape the bones of his leg to distribute that weight in a different fashion. In the past six years, Igor has suffered through a staggering 16 surgeries to ease the pain, but nothing has helped.

IGOR: I’ve never been more scared of my life than in these six years that I’ve had to stay home basically, because it’s the first times in my life where I’ve contemplated suicide, because the doctors don’t understand that pain. There are still moments like that where I think why, why was I brought to this earth, if nobody can provide me with the kind of help that I need?

MICHAEL USHER: How do you feel when you see him suffering like that?

SVETLANA: I feel hopeless and helpless, and then I feel bad that I put him through all this suffering. I feel guilty then.

MICHAEL USHER: When everything else fails him, Igor escapes here, to a Minnesota lake that’s bigger than him, where he goes fishing alone. It’s a solitary and calm pursuit – and that’s a tonic the doctors can’t prescribe for a young man who just wants to blend in and relax. I’d imagine at times you must feel like the loneliest man in the world.

IGOR: I feel like I’m living in a desert, and there’s nobody around me.

MICHAEL USHER: Like you’re like to only man in the world.

IGOR: Yes.

MICHAEL USHER: God. Just bloody heartbreaking mate. What would make your everyday life easier?

IGOR: For the most part, I think that just things that normal people take for granted. It’s basically the three things – clothing, shoes, and transportation. I think that would be something - that if these three things were taken care of, there’ll be a lot of relief for me.

MICHAEL USHER: You get a sense of that frustration when you ride in Igor’s custom-made, and slightly crude, van.

IGOR: We had to lower the floors under the driver’s and passenger seat, and put a rail system under them.

MICHAEL USHER: You have to remember Igor’s a young man, just 29, and the fact is he’d love to cruise in a convertible. And that’s where decided to help out.

MICHAEL USHER: How’s the pain now, you feeling it, or is it all gone away?

IGOR: Nope, it’s all gone away, right now. Right now I am – this is a new level of excitement that I’m not used to.

MICHAEL USHER: Riding in a convertible may not seem like such a big deal, but for Igor it is.

IGOR: Man, I can’t stop smiling.

MICHAEL USHER: With an unknown lifespan, and so many restrictions, a few spins around the block for him is like a rocket-ride into space. That’s what you call freedom.

IGOR: Oh man, that much fun should be illegal. Wow.

MICHAEL USHER: If you could change anything, what would you change?

IGOR: I would like to change the way the world adapts to different people.

MICHAEL USHER: You just want to fit in.

IGOR: Yeah.

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