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After years in a Bulgarian orphanage and a dozen surgeries, man considers his disability ‘lucky’

Gabriel Spitzer
Stuart Olsen adjusts one of his prosthetic legs.

This story originally aired on April 27, 2019. 



By the time Stuart Olsen was 7 years old, he had endured more surgeries than most people experience in a lifetime. The focus of all of this medical attention and effort was on his legs.


“I must have had 11 or 12 surgeries to try and fix my legs,” Olsen said.



Olsen has a disability called Larsen syndrome, which affects his joints. For Olsen, it caused some of his joints to bend in the wrong direction and grow unevenly.


For a little while, Olsen was able to walk, but then: “My left leg started bending the opposite direction," Olsen said. "So it looked like duck legs.”


Like a lot of children with disabilities in Bulagria, Olsen was raised in an orphanage. Then, when Olsen was 15 years old, his life changed dramatically. He was adopted by a family in the United States.


They brought him to his new home on Vashon Island. Olsen’s new parents took him to Seattle Children’s Hospital to see if there was anything that could be done about his crooked legs.


After reviewing multiple X-rays, doctors concluded their only option was to amputate. Surgery was scheduled and Olsen lost his left leg and his right foot in one day.


Afterward, he was fitted with prosthetics. Adjusting to his new legs was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Every day after school, he had a session with his physical therapist.


“It took me three and a half years between the time I got up from a wheelchair and stood next to a table and held on with two hands for my dear life until I fell down on the ground and got up with no problem,” Olsen recalled.


Over the years, Olsen has had five prosthetics. He says having amputated legs is a “lucky” disability.


“Legs are for one function only," he said. "They are just for walking. They are not solving puzzles, they’re not doing anything. They’re to get you from point A to point B.”


Olsen has discovered sports: he plays wheelchair basketball, and hits the slopes on a monoski.


Olsen said the ultimate advance for prosthetic legs would be for someone to improve the fit of the leg. Someday, he wants to be able to walk and work up a sweat without having to worry if his prosthetic will fall off.


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.
Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.