Meeting Challenges: Dwarfism Bonds Brothers

A couple's two dwarf sons, one adopted, look out for each other.

January 28, 2009, 11:26 AM

Jan. 29, 2009— -- 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.

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.

Will had a shunt implanted in the back of his head to help drain spinal fluid -- a common problem for dwarfs. It hasn't kept him from stepping up to the plate in Little League baseball.

"Every time he goes up to bat, I kind of cringe a little bit," Suzanne Graf said.

"She always says she's really worried I'm going to get hit by a pitch, especially if the kid is really throwing fast," Will said. "But I'm not that scared whenever I'm up."

"To his credit, he stands in there, and he's unflinching," John Graf said.

'Fight Like Brothers, Hang Out Like Friends'

Both Will and Max relentlessly follow their goals. Gretchen McKay, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has chronicled the lives of the brothers since she first learned about them shortly after Max's adoption.

"Max falls down a lot because of his foot," McKay said. "Any time he takes a tumble in the school, somebody immediately comes up beside him and leans down so he can put his hands on their shoulders to get back up."

Will and Max do react differently to things, their parents said. If someone the brothers don't know begins staring at them, Will may choose to simply return the stare.

"I'd just give them a look back, trying to say to them, 'Stop staring,'" he said.

Max, on the other hand, likes to watch the faces of gawkers change when he offers a detailed explanation of dwarfism.

And if being brothers means being competitive with each other, and often annoying each other -- that profile also fits Will and Max.

"We fight like brothers, hang out like friends," Max said.

Will says someday he'd like to run the boutique hotel his parents own. Max is thinking about becoming a journalist. Whatever they choose, they've already settled on the basic principles -- despite coming from opposite sides of the earth.

When asked if anything is more important than brotherhood, they replied, in unison, "No."

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