Meeting Challenges: Dwarfism Bonds Brothers

Will and Max Graf have grown up together as brothers, even though they are from opposite sides of the earth.

"When you are in trouble or something, he'll be there," Will said of Max.

"We were made the same way inside," Max said. "We just look smaller, that's all."

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Will and Max are dwarfs. Each is around 3 feet 7 inches tall.

They are 13-year-old students at Avonworth Middle School in Pittsburgh, where they blend in with their larger classmates and have a network of friends who both look out for and learn from them.

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Will was born in October 1995, to Suzanne and John Graf, with a type of dwarfism called achondroplasia. The Grafs had no history of dwarfism in their families. Their other children, Charlie, 6, and Laura, 14, are average-size.

To learn what problems they would face in raising Will, and to gauge what his needs would be, Suzanne and John began attending meetings of Little People of America. They were welcomed into the group and encouraged by what they learned.

"You start to feel that, wow, this is going to be okay," Suzanne Graf said.

The Grafs are in the hospitality business. They own and run the Priory Inn in Pittsburgh, a former German Catholic Church that had been closed to make way for a freeway. What they had learned about dwarfism made them want to open the doors of their home to another child -- one who needed help and would also understand what Will was going through.

Looking through a newsletter of children with dwarfism, the Grafs saw a picture of Max, who had been abandoned in South Korea and was about to be placed in an institution.

"His picture literally just jumped out of the page," Suzanne Graf said. "I think it was just meant to be. Which is what we tell Max -- that he absolutely was meant to be with our family."

Brotherly Love

The Grafs arranged to adopt Max, meeting him for the first time Jan. 22, 1998, when he was flown from South Korea to Pittsburgh. He was a week shy of his second birthday.

"My whole body was tingling and shaking, all at the same time," Suzanne Graf said. "When [Max] came off, we already knew that he was our son. I just cried and cried, which, in retrospect, Max was probably wondering why this crazy lady, why was she grabbing him."

In the middle of an airport passageway, the family sat down for an introduction. Will and Max began to bond "almost immediately," she said.

"And I think that's what we were hoping," John Graf said, "that the two of them together would be stronger than either one apart."

Older sister Laura also assumed a large role in supporting her brothers.

That airport meeting set in motion an exercise in brotherhood and family ties that has now progressed through 11 years of vacations, birthdays, holidays, family weddings and hundreds of other photo-ops.

"If somebody has a bad day at school, or is frustrated because he has trouble getting to wash his hands in the sink because there's not a stool there, or is having trouble with his backpack because the books are so heavy, there's somebody there who can say, you know, 'I know what you're going through,'" John Graf said.

Both have had to deal with tough health issues. Max spent months in a body cast after having metal rods placed in his spine to stabilize it.

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