COLUMBIA — Larisa Rudelson never knew of Albina Lewis until she went to visit her in the burn unit at University Hospital.
Both women are originally from Russia and living in Columbia. Rudelson understands that being abroad can be very lonely, especially in such a tragic situation as Lewis’.
On Feb. 23 Lewis’ apartment caught fire and left her with serious burns on her arms, hands, ears and one of her legs. Her face did not receive burns as serious as those on her extremities.
The burns kept her in University Hospital for more than four months, and recently she was moved to the St. John’s Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital in St. Louis.
Surgeries and extended stays at both hospitals have left Lewis and her husband, Craig, with enormous medical bills. Overall, Lewis’ medical bills have surpassed $2 million, according to a news release about a benefit in her name.
Through word-of-mouth, Rudelson heard about Lewis’ accident within a few months of its occurence. Immediately struck by the fact that Lewis was also from Russia, and without ever meeting her before, Rudelson felt an urge to help.
"Feeling she is lonely here, I felt that I could help by showing support," she said at a benefit held at Studio B Dance Center on Saturday.
She began visiting Lewis at University Hospital during her free time, but their conversations were always one-sided. Lewis received an emergency tracheotomy that left her speechless.
Rudelson is also connected within the Russian community in Columbia and spread the word of Lewis’ situation to as many local Russians as she could. She started using a listserv to e-mail everyone that was connected with the Russian community to alert them of Lewis' situation.
Soon enough, Rudelson was not the only fellow Russian going to visit Lewis in the burn unit. Russian priests came to visit her, and women from the Russian community gathered to host tea parties in her room.
One of Lewis’ nurses, Sandy Hild, was impressed by the outpouring of support from a community that had never met Lewis before the accident.
“[The Russian community] didn’t just come once or twice. They came religiously. They were always coming by to let Albina know that there were people here for her, people that cared about her and were praying for her recovery,” Hild said.
Hild also talked about support that she saw from Lewis’ co-workers at ABC Labs. Although Lewis had only worked there for five months, the walls of her room at the burn unit were adorned with postcards and notes from her co-workers.
“The postcards were just a nice reminder for Albina that people are thinking about her. The postcards were just simple ‘hellos’ or just checking in with her,” Hild said.
Monica Logan is among Lewis' co-workers who keep up-to-date with Lewis’ progress.
Logan worked with Studio B Dance Center to set up a benefit to help offset some of the high medical costs from Lewis' bills.
“I wanted to help Albina and Craig any way that I could. We are all very excited to help raise as much money that we can to help support her in her recovery,” Logan said.
In hopes to attract patrons to the event, free beginner dance lessons were offered by an owner and trainer of Studio B Dance Center Ashley Mayer.
A varied mix of co-workers, members of the Russian community, nurses from the University Hospital burn unit ICU and complete strangers gathered to help support the cause.
Besides a requested donation of $15 from the patrons, there was also a silent auction of more than 30 gifts. Most of the gifts were gift certificates for local restaurants. All of the proceeds from the event were directly contributed to a fund for Lewis.
"She's so determined to get abilities back," Logan said. "(Her husband) would wake up and find her bicycling her legs to make them strong again."
Although Lewis is still working to rehabilitate in St. Louis — she just had another surgery Thursday — Logan said her determination gives friends and co-workers hope.