“ I love what mAss Kickers is doing and I really appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the mAss Kicker Team!
Chris Grundner has the honor of being the first non-patient featured mAss Kicker. Loved ones and caretakers play a very powerful role in a patient’s mAss Kicking arsenal and Chris has first-hand experience in this area. In addition, Chris made a personal commitment to be a lifetime mAss Kicker when he walked away from a successful job at JPMorgan Chase to start The Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation. We were very fortunate to find time to interview him.
mK: Why did you start The Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation?
CG: I started The Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation in memory of my wife and best friend, Kelly, who passed away from a malignant brain tumor in September 2004 at the age of 31. After Kelly’s passing, I was moved to quit my job as a Senior Vice President at JPMorgan Chase and commit my life to changing the face of this terrible disease.
I didn’t set out to start my own foundation, but the reality was that no other brain tumor group in the U.S. was doing the one thing I was most passionate about – raising awareness and educating the public and medical professionals about the facts, symptoms and proper diagnosis techniques. Everyone else was focused on either research to find a cure or patient support. Don’t get me wrong, both of these things are extremely important. However, I felt there was a lot of good that could come from a well-designed awareness campaign (which would help people get diagnosed faster, help bring more people to the fight, and help reduce long-term health-related costs associated with the disease) and I quickly realized that the only way the ball was going to get rolling was if I took the lead.
Our trademark slogan is “Get Your Head In The Game” and I am proud to say that after just 3 ½ years since our launch we’ve made a significant amount of progress in advancing the movement. Of course, I have to give a shout out to all our volunteers and donors who helped make this dream a reality. We couldn’t do it without them!
mK: What were Kelly’s symptoms?
CG: It all started with headaches. She started having them as early as April and they were really bad – both in severity and in duration. Oddly, the doctor thought they could be caused by allergies and gave her a couple of different allergy prescriptions to try. Unfortunately, after two months, Kelly’s headaches were just getting worse.
It was at that time that Kelly’s doctor suggested she try migraine medicine. Unfortunately, after trying various migraine prescriptions for another two months we decided that wasn’t working either. To make matters worse, Kelly was now having other symptoms, as well – bouts of dizziness, blurry vision and loss of coordination. The doctor ordered a pregnancy test and some blood tests to check for things like Lymes Disease or Thyroid Disorder. All of these tests came back negative.
Out of sheer frustration, Kelly and I decided to search the Internet ourselves to see if we could get to the bottom of things. After some searching, we were amazed to see that all of the symptoms that Kelly was having (which now included nausea and memory problems) could be indicative of a brain tumor. We immediately made an appointment with the doctor. On the day of the appointment, Kelly had a migraine headache and was doubled over in pain – curled up in the fetal position on the exam table in the doctor’s office with the lights turned off in the room. When the doctor came in, I told her that we had done some research on the Internet and we thought Kelly’s symptoms might be related to a brain tumor.
The doctor responded that she didn’t think it was a brain tumor and that “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, Mr. Grundner. Besides, Kelly is too young to have a brain tumor.” I told her that I hoped she was right, but that I still thought an MRI was warranted since this has been going on for several months and we still haven’t figured out what is causing it. The doctor responded with what had to be the most absurd thing she could have possibly said. Something to the effect of “Mr. Grundner, an MRI is an expensive exam and it is against my best medical judgment to order one.”
At this point I actually screamed back at her that I didn’t care how expensive the exam was, that it was the next logical step and that I wasn’t leaving unless she ordered one. In a belittling tone she said again, “It is against my best medical judgment. But if it will make you feel better, Mr. Grundner I will order one.” I really wanted to scream at the doctor again, but I got what I wanted so I decided to just help Kelly into the car and leave. Five days later Kelly had the MRI and a golf-ball tumor was discovered.
mK: Sadly, that is a common theme for young adults. It takes a lot of strength and courage to be an advocate for your loved ones. Who is your hero or heroes?
CG: I have a couple of heroes depending on what perspective you take.
1. There is no question that here on earth, Kelly is my hero. She was and still is my single biggest inspiration. When she was healthy, she was the most positive and determined person I’ve ever known. She never used the word “can’t.” What’s more, if someone told her she couldn’t do something she would set out to prove them wrong. Everyone will tell you that most of the time she would too. In fact, her nickname among some of her friends was “Kelly Can.”
Amazingly, Kelly’s positive attitude was even more noticeable when she got sick. She never got angry, never felt sorry for herself over her diagnosis and was never bitter about being misdiagnosed. She used to say that the only thing in life you can control is your attitude and her choice was to be happy and focus on the positive. Her motto on life was ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ and that is what she did each and every day.
It still amazes me to this day. The reality was that we were supposed to be taking care of her, but, if you think about it, she was really the one taking care of us. Her positive attitude and determination to beat the disease is what got us through. The two years of her illness were some of the toughest times anyone could ever imagine, but she made them easier for me by just being Kelly. Even now, years later, whenever I get weary and tired, I think about Kelly and what she went through and it inspires me. Not only to just keep on keeping on, but to live life to the fullest.
2. To answer your question from a fictional perspective, I’ve always been a big fan of Spider-Man. Not the movie as much as the comic book. I was big into comic books when I was a kid and the story of Spider-Man and his alter-ego, Peter Parker, always resonated with me. In particular, I’ve always thought that the quote from the comic that says “With great power comes great responsibility” was really incredible. It probably sounds corny, but I think about this in relation to my life. I know that I am not a comic book hero, but the truth is that I’ve been given some really amazing talents and skills. As such, I have a responsibility to use them to help others. As I said earlier, that is what I am trying to do through the foundation.
3. My final answer is from an eternal perspective. At the risk of getting ‘religious’ on you, my biggest hero is Jesus Christ. The fact that he willfully laid down his life for me and for my salvation shows me the TRUE MEANING OF LOVE and there is NOTHING greater than that.
mK: What motivates you?
CG: My single-biggest motivator for doing what I am doing is the fact that there are so many kids who are suffering from this disease. Kelly was definitely my inspiration for starting the foundation and I think about her and miss her every day, but when I think about the kids I’ve met whose lives have been devastated by a brain tumor, I get really fired up about doing everything I can to change the course of this disease. I think the fact that I married again and that my wife, Susan, and I have a child (Kelly and I didn’t have children) makes this hit home even more.
mK: What are the Michigan Wolverines chances of making a college bowl game in 2010?
CG: Ha! I was wondering if you were going to ask me this question! I really don’t know. Being the eternal optimist that Kelly taught me to be, I want to believe that they can go 7-5 this season and make it to a bowl game. I like their new quarterback, Tate Forcier, and think he is going to bring a real nice element to their offense this season – despite the fact that he is a freshman and will definitely make some mistakes. With that said, my number one goal for their season is to beat Ohio State. It has been way too long since they’ve been able to make that happen and if I were Rich Rodriguez, I would make that my priority. I am pretty sure that fans can live without going to a bowl game this year if you win that game. Besides, the game is at home this year and I will be there!
mK: Ha, ha, ha! Beating Ohio State is a very tall order! What was your toughest challenge as a loved one of someone with a difficult diagnosis? How did you guys overcome it?
CG: The feeling of helplessness was by far my biggest challenge. It is so difficult to watch someone you love go through so much pain and suffering and not be able to do anything about it. I wanted so desperately to trade places with Kelly and take on her suffering, but I couldn’t. I wanted to somehow fix everything and make it all better, but I couldn’t do that either. Even more frustrating was the fact that so much of her care was out of my control.
The way we overcame it, was to talk about everything – our hopes, our fears, anything and everything. Having open and honest communication was our approach before she got sick and it worked after her diagnosis, as well. Interestingly, I found out that all she wanted/needed from me was for me to be there. This helped a lot. Partly because I was already giving her what she wanted and partly because it took away some of the self-imposed burden I was putting on myself. While it didn’t make it any easier to see her suffer, it helped to know that she didn’t expect me do the impossible.
mK: What is your guilty pleasure?
CG: Cookies. I eat a cookie almost every day. It is usually after dinner or just before I go to bed. My wife, Susan, calls me her “Little Cookie Monster.” Thankfully, I have a pretty good metabolism!
mK: Cookies are what give people extra energy… or maybe an expanding waistline. Random question time… If you could relive any moment in time what would it be and why?
CG: That is a tough one. Honestly, I’ve always tried to live my life the best way I know how and have tried not to have any regrets. Also, I am a firm believer that things happen the way they are supposed to happen. For example, I get really sad and beat myself up when I think about the fact that I spent way too much time at work when Kelly was healthy. I would have never done that if I knew she was going to get sick. I was working so hard for the future – we both were – and just assumed that we were going to have a lot of time together. If I could do that over again, I would. I would not have taken our life together for granted and would have spent more time with her.
As quickly as I say that though, I also think about the fact that if I didn’t work so hard all those years and climbed the corporate ladder like I did, I wouldn’t have been able to take as much time off of work to be Kelly’s caretaker when she was sick. Also, JPMorgan may not have treated been as good as they were when I made the decision to leave. Certainly, I wouldn’t have had the financial resources I had to start KHG. I know Kelly never blamed me for working so much and she wouldn’t want me to blame myself. As I said before, I do believe things happened the way they were supposed to happen.
With that said, I absolutely believe God has given me a second chance with my wife, Susan, and son, Cooper. Even though the brain tumor cause is exceptionally important to me, I know that my number one priority each and every day is to be the best husband and father that I can be. As much as I know I am not to blame myself for what I didn’t do with Kelly, I am committed to not making the same mistake twice.
mK: Yeah, everyone really learns from these “experiences”. What do you like to do in your spare time now?
CG: My favorite pastime, besides spending time with my family, is bicycling. I have both a road bike and a mountain bike and I belong to a local race team, Team DRT/Deep Blue. I had a pretty big year in 2007, even winning a couple of races and a title in my age group. Now that I am a father though, I ride more for fun and exercise than anything else. The reality is that my schedule with the foundation is pretty hectic, so I am lucky if I can get out twice a week. It is all good though. Once Cooper is old enough, I know he will ride with me.
mK: Cool. Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
CG: Two things and, unfortunately, both are easier said than done.
First, try to stay positive. What the mind dwells upon, the body acts upon. With that said, you shouldn’t set yourself up for failure by focusing only on the potential negative outcome. Instead, you want to focus only on the positive outcome. If I am talking to a child, I would recommend that they watch the movie “Osmosis Jones”. It is a cartoon comedy that depicts the cellular forces of ‘good and evil’ battling inside the body. In the movie, Osmosis Jones is a white blood cell police officer who is tracking down a deadly virus. Kelly and I watched the movie together several times and she would visualize the good cells beating the bad cells every time she went in for radiation or a chemotherapy treatment. She had very few side-effects and I honestly believe it was in part from her positive attitude and positive visualization.
Secondly, do your homework, ask a lot of questions and get a second or third opinion before you choose a treatment plan. At the end of the day, the doctors are there to help you to get better, but it is your responsibility to pick the best option for you. You wouldn’t buy a car without doing research first and/or talking to different dealers, would you? Well, your life is a lot more serious than that buying a car, so you need to be even more diligent. Sadly, I think too many people put doctors on pedestals and never question anything they tell them for fear of offending them. My advice is that you are not there to make friends, but to get the best treatment possible, so you need to the best advocate for yourself as you can be.
mK: Right. Tell us something about you that people probably didn’t know… anything.
CG: I really don’t like spiders. That is kind of funny when you think about the fact that one of my heroes is Spider-Man, right?
mK: Any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
CG: I love what mAss Kickers is doing and I really appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the mAss Kicker Team! Also, if anyone wants more information about the foundation, they should check out our websites: www.khgfoundation.org and www.getyourheadinthegame.org
Thanks for hanging out with us Chris! Chris Grundner: eternal optimist, cookie monster, loving husband/father, avid biker, and driven man. We salute you for all your work spreading brain tumor awareness. OK, now let’s go grab some cookies!