When Griffin McConnell was 4, he begged his dad to teach him to play chess.
His parents, Kevin and Kori McConnell, had no idea the game would later prove instrumental in their child’s recovery from brain surgery that removed the left side of his brain.
At first, the only sign that something was amiss was when his parents noticed that Griffin would sometimes not respond when they spoke to him. They thought he was ignoring them.
He could hear, but he couldn’t answer as a result of “complex partial” seizures characterized by slight repetitive motions like smacking of the lips, or tugging a shirt.
Griffin was diagnosed in 2011 with epilepsy at age 5 — not good news — but doctors said not to worry, that he would likely grow out of it, Kevin McConnell said.
In 2011, the family moved from the Eastern Slope back to their native Grand Junction where almost immediately Griffin began experiencing a half dozen or more full-blown grand mal seizures a month. Then he started “clustering,” meaning he’d have four or five seizures every day. Finally, a condition known as status epiletus — constant seizures — landed Griffin at St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room. He was flown to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
Kevin McConnell quit his job; the family moved back to Westminster to be near a pediatric neurologist. The next two years were “horrific” as the family dealt with the stress and constant terrifying seizures of their oldest child, whose medications to control the attacks caused additional problems.
“He was having psychotic episodes,” from the medication, McConnell said. “He’d have running seizures. He was trying to run out; he wanted to escape. We had to hold him,” sometimes for hours to prevent him from throwing chairs and other items. They were concerned for the safety of his two younger siblings.
“It was scary,” Griffin said, talking alongside his dad on Monday.
There were times when his younger brother, Sullivan, then 5, called the emergency room while McConnell restrained Griffin.
McConnell recalled it took 10 nurses to hold down Griffin, who by then was 7.
“He was having so many seizures we didn’t know about,” McConnell said. “If he got upset, he’d go crazy. He’d break everything he could get his hands on.
“It was the worst time of our lives.”
By this time, the family was aware that Griffin had cortical dysplasia, a congenital abnormality in the brain’s development. Seizures occur when neurons fail to spread out and position correctly during the brain’s development in utero.
Finally, following a two-part brain surgery in April 2012 — the first to place a monitoring device in the brain, and the second to remove the left frontal lobe, which doctors expected would eliminate the seizures — the family experienced six days of peace.
Then, after almost a week of no seizures the attacks resumed, longer and more violent; worse than before.
Eventually, the hospital recommended a hemispherectomy — removal of the left side of his brain to stop the disease from spreading to the other side, McConnell said.
“As a parent, it’s difficult to think about a surgery that involves half of the brain being removed,” McConnell said. “We were told his (left hemisphere) brain was experiencing atrophy; it was dying anyway.”
Less than two weeks after the surgery, while Griffin was still hospitalized, he asked his dad to play chess.
Griffin couldn’t yet walk, and he could only speak a handful of words, but he could play the game.
Chess tournament Saturday
McConnell organized a Young Scholar’s Challenge Chess Tournament in Grand Junction for Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Clarion Inn ballroom, 755 Horizon Drive, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Check-in is at 8:30 a.m. Children and teens registering that day need to arrive by 8 a.m.)
Griffin loves the game, excels at it, and his father is “100 percent” convinced that chess has helped Griffin’s right brain take over the function of what used to be his left brain.
“The doctors even agreed that’s a plausible assumption,” McConnell said. “That’s why I started these chess tournaments” in Grand Junction.
Two weeks ago, Griffin played at an East Slope tournament where he won two out of four games in the tournament’s most difficult division. He’s looking forward to competing in Grand Junction tournaments in November, January, February and March.
In the first two tournaments, kids will play in grade level divisions: K-1, 2-3, 4-6 and 7-12. Thereafter, chess players will compete according to their rating strength, determined in the first two tournaments by a chess software program equivalent to the U.S. Chess Federation rating system.
Griffin, now 9, plays a little chess every day before school and attends chess club where he is currently the top-rated player among 61 kids, McConnell said.
The U.S. Chess Federation rates most children through middle school at 800 or 1,000, whereas Griffin is rated at 1,500.
He’s a popular fourth-grader at Hackberry Hill Elementary in Arvada, where Griffin was enrolled in the school’s gifted and talented program. The other students do not tease him as he relearns how to talk and walk, McConnell said. He even plays a form of soccer where an adult runs along the left side of his body.
“I love Hackberry Hill,” Griffin volunteered, as his dad talked about the school.
The fact that Griffin can talk at all is kind of a mystery, McConnell said. While he’s not quite reading, he can listen, recall and test for knowledge and is ahead of doctors’ expectations.
“Every week he gets better,” McConnell said.
Since the hemispherectomy, Griffin has been seizure-free for six months — a “milestone” after two-and-a-half years of daily seizures. He and his father talk openly, joking even, about those days that are hopefully forever in the past.
If Griffin goes a year or two without seizures, physicians have told his parents he will probably be free of them in the future.
“Although he’ll have some permanent disability, Griffin is happy 95 percent of the time now.” McConnell said.
“There’s laughter in our house again,” Kori McConnell said. “Who knew half a brain could make our family so much better. He has impairments, but his spirit is back. He’s happy.”
Kori McConnell said Griffin has always felt pride in his chess skills, and these days she also notices how the game instills “a sense of calm.”
“You don’t have to talk. He knows he can do it. He knows he’s good at it,” she said.
McConnell said there are numerous studies that show how chess is good for children’s brain development.
He mentioned a study completed in the 1990s that tested a group of fourth-graders who scored 17 percent improvement in overall math ability after taking 20 chess lessons. Other studies suggest that children who start playing chess at a young age have enhanced IQ scores.
“Chess is very good for children,” McConnell said. “It teaches them patience. Because of the nature of chess, players are constantly thinking ahead. Their plans must constantly evolve.”
In fact, 30 countries worldwide require chess playing as part of their educational curriculum, McConnell noted.
The one thing different about Griffin’s chess playing: He’s learned to move the pieces around with his left hand.
“Pretty impressive,” Griffin said with a grin.