9-year-old boy uses chess to help brain recovery

WESTMINSTER – If brains were brawn, Griffin McConnell used to be a juggernaut.

"Griffin was in the gifted and talented program, was a voracious reader and chess player and everything else," Kevin McConnell, father, said. "He'd stopped doing everything but watching basically three movies."

The 9-year-old old boy has had a 5-year-battle with brain issues including a type of epilepsy known as Rasmussen's Syndrome.

"It just kinda became our whole life," Kori McConnell, said.

The McConnells say everything became agonizing for the whole family, including Griffin's younger brother Sullivan and younger sister Moira.

Griffin was a chess champion, an athlete, an artist. But, he started having multiple Grand Mal seizures a day.

"We were losing our son," Kevin McConnell said. "Categorically, we were losing our son. His spirit was already almost out the door."

"He was gone," Kori McConnell said.

After months of dealing with these crippling seizures, Griffin developed a condition called Status Epilepticus.

"He didn't stop seizing ever," Kevin McConnell said.

Eventually, Kevin and Kori McConnell had to make the difficult decision of having Griffin undergo a hemispherectomy. Doctors would surgically disconnect the left side of Griffin's brain permanently.

"If you're going to this horrible thing to your child, you would at least want to know if possible that it's definitively going to work and they can't (know)," Kevin McConnell said. "Some kids have seizures a month after they have surgery."

Some kids never walk or talk again. But, after the 9-hour procedure, Kori McConnell says they were sitting in Griffin's recovery room when something happened.

"He rolled his eyes at us actually," Kori McConnell said. "So, you know your kids okay if he's going to roll his eyes at you."

Ten days later, with Griffin still in the hospital and unable to speak, something even more unexpected happened.

"He was getting irritated with me cause I didn't know what he wanted and it was the chess board," Kevin McConnell said.

The former chess champion wanted to play chess with his dad.

"I thought all of our struggles for the next year at least were going to be walking, talking," Kevin McConnell said. "I certainly didn't expect to start playing actual games with him at the hospital."

Griffin did not stop there. He started to work hard to regain his functions. He's re-learning to speak at Children's Hospital Colorado's North Campus in Broomfield.

"Trying to work on the organization of his thoughts and grammar and also just the intelligibility of his speech," Christy Schneller, speech and language pathologist, said.

At Hackberry Hill Elementary, Griffin started re-learning to use his body by dancing, singing, and reading at once.

"Movement and music help him remember words," Pamela Olmstead, Para educator, said.

Griffin started to re-learn how to think at chess tournaments organized by his dad. Kevin McConnell put together the Young Scholar's Challenge, open to kids of any playing level. McConnell just wanted to give Griffin the chance to play his game of artistry and strategy.

"Thinking traps and checkmate," Griffin said. "I love tournaments."

He can talk now. It is still slow and he sometimes has to pause to put together his sentences. But, his parents believe playing chess is helping him re-discover his brain.

"I think that chess playing is why he's doing as well as he is because he has all those neuropathways that has to use for both sides of the brain," Kori McConnell said.

Kevin McConnell believes that playing chess is primarily a function of the right side of the brain, which is the side that still functions for Griffin.

"It's possible that that could've helped the right brain take over the functions of the left brain because that's what has to happen in a hemispherectomy," Kevin McConnell said.

It's possible that chess is helping Griffin in school.

"Now, every week I see new words and new connections," Olmstead said.

It's possible that chess is helping Griffin in therapy.

"It's amazing to see his progress even in just six months," Schneller said.

Is it possible that Griffin is actually better at chess now?

"He's playing at a much higher level than he was at his best before surgery," Kevin McConnell said.

Schneller is astounded.

"Only have half a brain and be able to win 50 percent of the time against kids that are older than him is amazing," Schneller said.

The amazing part, Kori says, is she has her son back.

"I'm grateful because we didn't know if this would happen," Kori McConnell said. "We didn't even know if he would live."

Griffin still has a long way to go. He still has troubling remembering things. He still has trouble moving the right half of his body.

"Muscles and weak arm and foot and weak hands and neck," Griffin said.

But, the big question is about the seizures.

"Since the procedure, how many seizures has he had?" Kevin McConnell said. "Zero."

Griffin says he's happy.

"Feel good, not seizure," Griffin said.

He still thinks he's a year or two away from being strong again. But, he is good at playing part of his recovery on a chess board where Griffin definitely is king.

"Yes, I love chess," Griffin said.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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