Local dairy farmer Richard Lettner has seen parts of the world many only dream about. The Trempealeau resident has been to the Berlin Wall in Germany, walked the Parisian streets of France and even spent a week with the famous singing von Trapp family. His travels throughout Europe with an agricultural exchange program have taken him from one village to the next. But it was his experience in a city in western Ukraine and an encounter with a school superintendent that stands out among the rest.
Photo by Emily Buss
Trempealeau resident Richard Lettner traveled to western Ukraine with an agricultural exchange program but came back seeking the help of Mayo Clinic doctors for a Ukrainian woman he met.
In 1995, the Golden Age of production in Western Europe had ended, leaving the post-Communist countries catastrophically wounded. The country of Ukraine was still reeling from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion nine years earlier and the economy had suffered a major slowdown. Large corporately run farms in western Ukraine were failing, leaving many out of work and on the streets.
“When Communism went down, everything went down,” Lettner said. “Farms went from 800 dairy cows to nothing. They just disappeared, everything was barren.”
Lettner was in western Ukraine as part of an agricultural exchange program that paired American farmers with men and women in poverty stricken countries. These people were in need of help dealing with the agricultural setbacks such as loss of livestock, machinery, and farmhands. Lettner said everything was taken from them after the fall of Communism.
“There was no machinery, no people working them, no money, everything was literally bulldozed over,” he said. “People were coming off 800-cow farms that had acres and acres of land to having nothing. People were trying to get started with dairy cattle and I tried to help them get back on their feet.”
Familiar with the dairy cow farming lifestyle, Lettner worked with families and young boys who had a cow and some crops and farmed by hand. Unlike using the machinery he was used to back in Wisconsin, Lettner said they were behind the times.
“When I saw just how in shambles everything was, I thought back to how my grandparents and great-grandparents farmed,” he said. “They were easily behind about 100 years.”
Lettner visited many towns and farms throughout his time with the exchange program but it wasn’t until he was in the city of Drohobych that the trip became something more. While working on one family farm, Lettner became friends with some boys who attended a school in Drohobych. He had brought some letters from students in Trempealeau to give to kids in Ukraine and decided to visit the school. During the tour, Lettner met Superintendent Kornelia Melnikevich. After shaking her hand, Lettner noticed something different, her coiled, cramped fingers.
“I was going on to the second floor of the school to see the English department and invited Kornelia to come but she declined,” Lettner said. “Once I got upstairs, I asked the English teacher why Kornelia’s hands were the way they were and why she wouldn’t follow us. The teacher said she couldn’t climb stairs.”
Lettner was told Melnikevich had severe, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. The autoimmune disease is progressive and permanent. Melnikevich had advanced stages of the arthritis in her hands, knees and hips, making her mobility limited. After seeing his mother go through the same struggle, Lettner couldn’t let Melnikevich suffer alone.
“I had my hip replaced at Mayo Clinic and I said if she couldn’t come back with me then at least send me an X-ray and I’ll take it back to Mayo,” he said. “I wanted to bring it to the doctor that helped me with my hip to see if they could help her.”
While applying for a travel visa, Melnikevich dealt with an unsympathetic Ukrainian embassy that initially denied her request.
“It was a long struggle to get her over here,” Lettner said. “Both Kornelia and her daughter were turned down for visas. I’m sure they thought that she didn’t have anything else to come back for so why would she come back to her home country? But I like a challenge, we were just getting started.”
After months of filling out paperwork and getting the appropriate documentation, Melnikevich was allowed to leave Drohobych in summer of 1996, but had to leave her daughter behind. From Drohobych, Melnikevich flew into Chicago and traveled the nearly 350 miles to Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
The estimated cost of knee replacement surgery was topping $30,000. But Johnson and Johnson, a medical products company, donated the prosthetic knee and Lettner was left with the difference, about $12,000 he paid out of his own pocket.
“She kept thanking me profusely and wondered why I had decided to help her,” Lettner said. “Sometimes you do things because you have to or because you want to. And I wanted to help her. You just do what you have to do.”
Melnikevich spent six months in intensive physical therapy relearning how to walk properly. With the help of Mayo Clinic nursing staff and encouragement from Lettner, Melnikevich was able to travel back to Ukraine.
Throughout the years, Lettner has visited Melnikevich in her hometown and stayed in contact with the family. But in 2007, a sudden illness and complications with the artificial knee brought Melnikevich to the hospital, where she passed away.
“Her daughter still calls me here and there and we talk on the phone. She is still so appreciative of what I had done for her mother,” Lettner said. “She said after her mother died, she really realized what I did for her and how the operation helped her live life to the fullest.”