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Published April 17, 2012, 11:30 PM

Part 1 of 2: The unlikely story of Tommy, his big head and his family’s even bigger hearts

HAWLEY, Minn. - One day, Leah Greuel hopes and believes her son Tommy will be able to walk without risking his life. He’ll be able to run – maybe not with grace but without fearing that a stumble will batter his brain. His neck will be strong enough to hold his head upright for more than a few minutes at a time.

By: Marino Eccher, INFORUM

HAWLEY, Minn. - One day, Leah Greuel hopes and believes her son Tommy will be able to walk without risking his life. He’ll be able to run – maybe not with grace but without fearing that a stumble will batter his brain. His neck will be strong enough to hold his head upright for more than a few minutes at a time.

And one day, when he graduates from his current “Bob the Builder” library to heavier reading, he might come to realize what a whirlwind the first two and a half years of his life were.

There was the adoption brokered in the most unlikely of locations. There was the medical mystery of the skull that wouldn’t stop growing, perched precariously atop a body that wouldn’t hold it up and threatening the otherwise-healthy brain inside. There was the bitter battle for custody, and the community that rallied behind a family in its hour of need.

And when that day comes, his parents – who have rearranged the house, rearranged their lives, waged courtroom battles, broken the bank and generally moved heaven and earth for him – know exactly what they’re going to say:

“You were so worth it,” says Leah, “and we wouldn’t trade you for anything.”

The baby aisle

When Leah Greuel walked into Walmart on 13th Avenue in Fargo in August 2009, she was looking to get diapers for her not-quite-2-year-old daughter.

When she walked out, she was thinking about Tommy, who was not quite yet born.

She certainly didn’t plan it that way.

“I went to get pull-ups,” she says. “I was not in the baby aisle to get a baby.”

But while shopping, she came across a 19-year-old woman who was pregnant and clearly due soon.

“Oh, you’re going to be a busy girl,” Greuel joked with the woman.

“Oh, not really,” the woman replied. The baby was coming any day, she said, but she was giving him up for adoption and didn’t yet have a family. She already had an infant daughter who was not yet a year old, and the father wasn’t in the picture.

Then, in the middle of the store, she dropped the bombshell question: Would Leah be interested in taking the baby?

Leah asked if she was serious. The woman said she was and that something about Leah “made the hair on her arms stand up” the minute they started talking. It just felt right, she said.

Leah, stunned, said she needed to think about it. She gave the woman her phone number and left the store, forgetting to buy the diapers she’d come for.

“I called my husband at work,” she said. “I said, ‘Honey, you need to sit down.’ ”

‘Only Leah can walk into Walmart …’

In spite of the unorthodox circumstances, the notion of adopting the baby wasn’t as outlandish as it sounded.

Kaylee, the Greuel’s daughter, was adopted. So were Leah’s father and three of her siblings. And Leah and her husband, Kalvin, had already been talking about adopting a second child after Kaylee’s second birthday, which was a month away.

“Adopting wasn’t hard for us,” she said.

Kalvin was as surprised as anyone and, though he later came around, worried a scam might be afoot.

“I was like, ‘Wow, is this for real?’ ” he said. “When I married Leah, I knew life would never be dull.”

Tifani Luschen, who has known Leah since childhood, was less surprised. She figured it couldn’t have happened any other way for her strong-willed, perpetually generous friend.

“Only Leah can walk into Walmart and come out with a child,” Luschen said.

The day after the Walmart meeting, the Greuels, Tommy’s birth mother and their respective social workers got together. The Greuels had moved from West Fargo to a hobby farm in rural Hawley three days earlier and needed a waiver from a Minnesota law requiring adoptive parents to be residents of the state for a year.

Attorneys in the Twin Cities scrambled to win approval. They succeeded in time for Leah to be in the delivery room during Tommy’s birth. Leah and the biological mother worked on his baby book together. Two days after he was born, he went home with the Greuels.

It didn’t take long for them to realize something wasn’t right.

A seizure, an accusation

Tommy’s biological mother used to call him “Mr. Bobblehead” – his head was big, and he didn’t hold it up very well.

When he was a newborn, it didn’t seem like much, but more red flags emerged. When he was circumcised at two weeks, he wouldn’t stop bleeding. The same thing happened as he was teething, or even when he bit his own lip.

He struggled with bouts of nausea, vomiting and exhaustion, sometimes sleeping for 20 hours at a time. And his physical awkwardness only got worse.

Every time Leah and Kalvin took him in for a checkup, blood draws came back normal, and no one could pinpoint the problem. Cognitively, nothing was amiss.

“He’s a big kid,” Leah said. His mother was 5-foot-11, and his father was 6-foot-4. “Sometimes these big kids, they’re just a little more clumsy.”

The Greuels and doctors hoped he’d grow out of it. Then they discovered something alarming: Tommy’s head, already in the 97th percentile of infants at birth, was growing much faster than the rest of his body.

At 6 months old, it was off the charts for his age group. At 9 months, it was nearly the size of a 5-year-old’s. No one they consulted had seen anything like it. The Greuels started looking for specialists and for answers.

On June 26, 2010, before they found the latter, Tommy had a seizure that lasted more than six minutes. Leah took him to the emergency room, where tests showed bleeding in the brain, hemorrhages in both eyes and a fluid build-up in his skull.

They were symptoms of Tommy’s condition, exacerbated by everyday bumps and stumbles. His connective tissue was weak, particularly around his eyes, and his brain was bruised from bumping into the inside of his own skull.

The Greuels didn’t know that yet. Neither did the hospital staff, who instead saw his symptoms as telltale signs of something else: shaken baby syndrome.

The hospital called Clay County Social Services, which said the injuries were evidence of child abuse – and that Kaylee was in danger as well.

And one day in early July, the agency took both children away.

To be continued Thursday on inforum.com ...

If you go

What: Tommy Greuel benefit

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Calvary United Methodist Church, 4575 45th St. S., Fargo

Info: A pasta dinner will be served for a freewill offering, followed by a silent auction. Proceeds will go toward medical and in-home therapy costs.

For more information: Contact Lesli McCully at (701) 200-8571 or ndmccullys@midco.net.

To donate: Contact State Bank & Trust at 3100 13th Ave. S. or visit dakmed.org/lendahand and click ‘Donate.’

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502