"That year, 1973, was the Arab embargo. The economy was bad. We persevered. We got a subsidy for a month and then supported ourselves. My dream was to go to college because I wasn't allowed to in Russia.
"I asked a charity organization to support me to take English as a foreign language. They knew I couldn't pass the entrance test. So I studied day and night. I took a dictionary and translated the newspaper all day and memorized the words. In three weeks, I took the test and passed it by the skin of my teeth, and they had to pay for my foreign student course.
"I applied to the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology and got accepted. The first year, I could not understand a word those professors were saying. But high schools in the United States are so bad in chemistry and calculus and math that I didn't have to understand any language. The first year, I survived just on my previous knowledge.
"You know how people influence your life? Two of my college people wanted to go into medicine and rekindled my interest in going to medical school. My wife, my girlfriend then, helped me write my statement letter. And fortunately, my grades were very good.
"I loved medical school. I got into a residency at the University of California San Diego in orthopedic surgery. I was going to be a cardiac thoracic surgeon, but I like orthopedic personalities more. They are hard-working but more happy-go-lucky. Orthopedics have a lot of happy outcomes.
"My mentor, Vern Nickel, a famous orthopedic surgeon, recommended me for a Girdlestone scholarship at Oxford. That was a great break. We went to England for a year.
"I came back to California for private practice for 15 years at Laguna Beach. I became chief of surgical services and chief of staff. But I wanted to go to academics. I went to Texas Tech, from the beautiful seashore to the middle of nowhere in Lubbock, Texas. I started the adult hip and knee reconstruction program there and became associate professor. Then I was recruited by the University of Texas and became a full professor in Houston.
"I'm here for the opportunity to build a center of excellence. I came here in January. They recruited me to build the adult reconstruction program for CAMC. It's a very fertile ground. West Virginia has a higher rate of arthritis than other states. I'm hoping this will become a regional center for people to come from neighboring states.
"I love Charleston, but they tricked me to come here. They brought me here in October, and it was absolutely breathtaking. I have not regretted it. I love the people and the setting.
"Deer hunting is a passion of mine, and big-game hunting. I'm a member of the Safari Club International. There's a chapter in every state but West Virginia, and I'm hoping we can start one here. I go maybe once a year on adventure hunts. I've hunted in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Alaska, Spain, everywhere.
"I go into the bush and meet people tourists will never meet and see things you will only see in National Geographic. Now I'm learning how to bow hunt, and it is very frustrating.
"I'm also learning to play the banjo. My father wanted me to be a musician. I started studying violin when I was 6. It helped me with my dexterity, but I never had a real interest. When I rebelled from violin as a teenager, I started a rock band and played electric guitar.
"I studied violin for maybe 12 years and played in an orchestra before we left. I wasn't able to bring my violin because it was given to me by my grandfather. It was an 1812 violin, and the Soviets said it was a national treasure and wouldn't let me take it. So that was the last time I played the violin.
"When I arrived here, I went to a few old-time music shows and met Jim Mullins and Bill Kimmons, and they got me involved in old-time music.
"My wife bought me a banjo for my birthday. I've been taking lessons. You don't have to be very good to sound good. It's fun. Steve Martin said that for depressed and unemployed people, we should give them a banjo. It's happy.
"I love experiences. We are given a short time, and I don't want to waste it. I would like to give it the fullest. Being an immigrant, I have a different mentality in the way I adjust to a place. Instead of walling myself, I want to go out there and become part of it. I like to learn as much as I can.
"Some people collect stamps and coins. I collect people I like to be with. I like genuine people, the people in Texas, the people in West Virginia.
"I have been blessed. I was lucky to get out from under the Iron Curtain, thanks to my parents. I've been back three times. The last time, I was invited to Odessa to be a visiting professor at the Medical University of Odessa. They wouldn't take me as a student, but they loved me as a professor.
"I was naturalized by the time I finished medical school. It took me longer than other immigrants. We couldn't even get a green card for several years because we were political refugees. That was very touchy. They could deport you at any time.
"I am Ukrainian by accident of birth. I'm American by choice. I am very patriotic. My family had to struggle to become Americans. When people criticize this country, it always surprises me. To know what good is, you have to know what bad is. You don't know how good you have it. This country is not without problems, but compared to everybody else, we are lucky to be here."Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.