WAXAHACHIE

Over the past eight years, Grant Kunz has made exceptional improvements on his horseback riding skills. After all, for an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy, he has come so far.

And, Grant’s family is optimistic that stem cell treatment will advance other abilities that will provide a better quality of life.

Grant was born with early symptoms of cerebral palsy. He suffered an injury while in the NICU, which deprived his brain of oxygen, affecting the brain and nervous system function such as thinking, seeing, hearing, learning and movement.

His brain suffered additional damage, which hinders his muscle functions. Grant also suffers from a heart valve problem, which increases his heart rate.

As Grant becomes more in-tuned with his body, he is still prescribed 11 medications a day — five for his seizures. In March 2017, Grant had over 360 seizures in nine days, which included 66 in one day. The series of seizures set him back significantly with his motor and cognitive skills.

“Every time he has a seizure, it’s a misfire in the brain,” his mother, Lauren Witte explained. Debbie Brooks, Grant’s grandmother, interjected, “They are not long, but they are painful.”

Grant undergoes physical, occupational and speech therapy when he isn’t on the back of a horse at Campfire Creek, a therapeutic riding center in Waxahachie. In his efforts, Grant has made exceptional progress. For the past three years, Grant has eaten on his own instead of from a tube and also has made greater strides after two leg surgeries that allowed him to walk flat-footed.

STEM CELL TREATMENT

Witte had already heard of a stem cell treatment center in Panama but was skeptical. After she spoke with another woman, whose son was basically living the same situation as Grant, the woman shared how her son was off all the medications and can walk without a walker some and has cognitively improved. Hearing this story gave Witte hope and motivation to apply to the facility — The Stem Cell Institute.

“We were just ecstatic and they said it would be like anywhere between two to four weeks before we’d heard anything and six days later we had an acceptance, which was very exciting and shocking. Just hopeful,” Witte expressed.

Right now, the family is in the process of raising funds. If the money is raised in time, the family will depart for Panama on Sept. 16 for four days of treatment.

Through an IV, Grant will receive 60 million stem cells that were extracted from donated umbilical cord blood, also known as mesenchymal stem cells. Witte explained that stem cells are packed cells with tons of healing property that are not blood-type specific, so there is no risk of rejection. The stem cells are extracted and tested for diseases and have nutrients infused in them. Once the stem cells are introduced back into Grant’s body through an IV, they will stimulate, repairing damaged nervous tissue in both the brain and spinal cord.

This can promote neuronal growth, induce new blood vessels growth, neurogenesis and astroglial activation, encourage synaptic connection and axonal remyelination, decrease programmed cell death and regulate microglial activation, according to the Stem Cell Institute website.

Via telecom, Grant will be assessed after the $17,000 treatment. Witte assured Grant should see results in up to a year and a half.

THE IMPACTFUL CAMPFIRE CREEK

The therapeutic riding at Campfire Creek has played an essential role in strengthening Grant’s body and mind. Emily Oliver, the co-founder and director of programs at Campfire Creek, has worked side-by-side with Grant for several years. She explained how the 30-minute therapy sessions, once a week have helped him become the boy he is today.

“As the horse moves, neurons are firing in the brain and so it’s kind of like how you will get a burst of creativity when you exercise. It’s the same thing,” Oliver explained. “But where he might not be able to move like Gavin does he can get on a horse move just like.”

Gavin is Grant’s twin brother and the two fifth graders attend La Rue Miller Elementary School in Midlothian.

Even though the therapy works on hand-eye coordination, core strength and motor skills, the overall goal is to have Grant ride independently. Two years ago, Grant graduated to only working with one side walker and one handler instead of two side walkers.

Truett Huddle is a volunteer at Campfire Creek who has been assigned to work with Grant since his first day at the center. By day two the partners were buddies.

Huddle shared when their relationship began, Grant would lean over the horse or would simply just lose interest. Over the years, Grant continues to improve and is eager to learn.

“Grant, he is such an inspiration. He is full of spirit and can do anything. He can do anything; he is upbeat. We talk and always have a good time. He lifts us up,” Huddle elaborated. “He’s been a blessing working with.”

Thorough instruction has advanced Grant’s skills in handling the harness, coordinating the horse and his posture has improved. Grant has even taken more responsibility by walking the horse in and out of the arena and locking up the gates with the assistance of a walker.

Grant’s depth perception has also improved along the way. Now he can place rings on a hat rack and throw bean bags in a bucket at a close and far range. His balance is more on point and even shows off by standing up in his stirrups while the horse walks. He can also ride sitting backward on the horse, singing.

The work between Grant and Huddle out of the saddle is just as significant, as the healthy relationship was brewed through trust and intelligent conversations after therapy. Huddle relayed the imagination of Grant is remarkable.

“In the first year we liked each other, but he didn’t want to sit down and chat. Now, he looks forward to him and I chatting,” Huddle relayed.

Oliver shared, “There were times when Grant would say, ‘I love you, Mr. Truett.’ And then he’d say, ‘I’ve got to go, but I’m coming back for ya.’ He never said he was coming back for me.”

Truett relayed, “he has grown and developed since I’ve been here and the stem cell, I pray that it works because there is no telling. He has the imagination and desire so he can be something great."

Another individual that’s been by Grant’s side is his twin brother, Gavin. The La Rue Miller Elementary fifth-grader admitted it’s scary when his brother has seizures but other than the episodes, Grant’s personality always shines.

The two twins both regularly ride together at Campfire Creek and have grown closer off the saddle because of it.

“I feel happy and like he’s the older brother by doing more and more learning so much,” said Gavin, also agreeing that Grant sets an example and inspires him. “He just brings out the good in everybody."

During the interview, Witte disclosed the honest truth of raising a child with disabilities and how she continually worries for her son. At that moment, Gavin put his arm around his mother to comfort her through the emotion.

“Anytime you have a child with a severe disability you worry about what that child’s life will look like later on — when my parents aren't here to help or when I’m not here anymore. What does that look like for him? You know it’s a very scary thing,” Witte said. “We’ve never wanted him to be in a home or our hope is that all the things that we are doing where he can function in society and enjoy his life. And he does, he enjoys his life. There is no doubt about that.”

In fact, to have a job where he interacts with people and to be more like-minded with his peers or even care for himself is what Witte and Gavin hope for most.

“Having to take care of my family is a great feeling. I love it,” Gavin shared. “I don’t think I could have anything else. Everything is perfect. […] I’m just praying that the stem cells will work and he’ll stop having seizures.”

To help Grant get to Panama, the family is hosting a fundraiser and auction from 5—9 p.m Aug. 11 at the Midlothian Bible Church parking lot. Donations can also be made at any Citizens National Bank location. Donations will also be accepted at www.gofundme.com/new-beginnings-for-grant-kunz.

For questions or additional information on the auction, call or text Lauren Witte at 214-463-8260 or contact Valerie Connette at 972-921-2206.

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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450