Katie DeGrace, a senior nursing student at the University of Michigan, has known Larry Prout Jr. – a Livingston County teenager with chronic health problems who has undergone more than 100 surgeries – for a few years.
Like Prout, DeGrace, 21, a 2014 Frankenmuth High School graduate, is a big fan of the university’s sports teams.
And DeGrace, who met Prout during her clinical studies while he was a hospital patient, has other things in common. While Prout was born with spina bifida – a condition in which the membranes and backbone around the spinal cord don’t fully close – DeGrace battled and survived stage IV ovarian cancer after being diagnosed with the illness at age 10.
Dr. Ronald Hirschl, the surgeon who has performed more than 80 surgeries on Larry Prout Jr., also performed a nine-hour surgery on Katie DeGrace to remove a large tumor in her abdomen when she was a student at E.F. Rittmueller Middle School in Frankenmuth.
So maybe it was only fitting that DeGrace became friends with Prout, 16, and his family.
Then DeGrace saw the Facebook post this fall from Kathy Prout, Larry Prout Jr.’s mother. Kathy and her husband, Larry Prout Sr., parents of six children, wanted a golf cart.
“They said they would take something that was even broken down because their other son could probably fix it,” Katie DeGrace said. “Immediately when I saw that, the largest light bulb anyone could ever think of went off. The timing was just so insane.” DeGrace, daughter of Chip and Vicki DeGrace of Frankenmuth, knew how it felt to receive a wonderful, unexpected gift. She recieved a golf cart 11 years ago that was painted maize and blue – the U of M school colors – with her name and the name of her sister, Nicole, painted on it.
“I’d never asked for anything like that and I had no clue I was getting it. It was just a fantastic surprise,” said DeGrace, who made an instant decision upon reading the Facebook request from Kathy Prout.
She would pass the golf cart on.
She would give away the vehicle given to her 11 years ago by Austin and Kaitlyn Monchilov, and their parents, Jeff Monchilov and JoAnne Sayles Monchilov.
“It was definitely, like, God, showing me that this was what was supposed to happen, and I couldn’t be more thankful,” said Katie DeGrace, who had been job-shadowing an emergency medical service worker in an ambulance when she saw Kathy Prout’s Facebook post.
“We had been parked at the moment, so I jumped out of the ambulance and I gave Kathy a call and I said ‘Kathy, you’ve gotta hear this. I’ve got a great surprise,’” DeGrace said. “I told her, and she was just in awe, and I was just so happy, because I knew how much joy that it was going to bring Larry.”
Kathy Prout said that within seconds after posting her Facebook message seeking a golf cart, Katie DeGrace called her.
“She said ‘You are not going to believe this,’” Prout said. “She had a golf cart that was given to her when she was sick, when she was little, and she wanted to give it to Larry. She wouldn’t let us pay for it.
“I asked ‘How much for transportation (of the cart)?’ She wouldn’t let us pay for that either. She just asks that someday Larry passes it on to someone else.”
The golf cart, delivered Oct. 29 on a trailer by the DeGrace family, paid instant dividends for Larry Prout Jr., who made headlines last year by “committing” to join the University of Michigan football team, a choice made possible by Team Impact, a nonprofit organization attaching chronically sick children with college teams around the country.
Prout spends time on the field with the Michigan football team before and after home games, and receives a front-row seat to games at Michigan Stadium.
“Larry Jr. knew the golf cart was coming, but watching him see it and be able to sit in it and drive it for the first time was so absolutely exhilarating,” Katie DeGrace said. “He had the biggest smile. He ran out of the house and gave me a big hug.”
The golf cart – the DeGraces had “Larry Jr.” painted on the vehicle that also bears the names of Katie DeGrace and her sister, Nicole – provides Larry Prout Jr. with independence as well as pride, according to his mom.
Larry Prout Jr., who attends Pinckney High School part-time and is the youngest of six children, “gave his older brothers a ride on the golf cart this past weekend,” Kathy Prout said.
“Two of them got on – and they’re big guys – and they had a great time. Larry drove them around. It’s really cool that Larry got to do that. Usually it’s always been his big brothers and big sisters – who all love Larry – who do things for Larry and take Larry places, and help him on rides at the fair.
“Here Larry got to drive the golf cart and give his big brothers a ride. That was really awesome.”
The Prout family lives on two acres but their property abuts a 10-acre township park, so the golf cart also offers a route to adventure. DeGrace said her dad, Chip DeGrace, a General Motors Co. engineer, “tinkered with it and somehow got it to go faster, so it picks up a little bit of speed – it’s pretty exciting.”
Larry Prout Jr. “uses a wheelchair and an electric scooter,” Kathy Prout said “He can walk, but it’s hard. He’s had 100 surgeries on everything from his neck down. His spine, his pelvis, his big bones in his legs, his feet, his ankle bones – everything.
“It’s hard to walk far, and the golf cart (offers) something to do. We live on a country road, and so on nice summer nights, he can go for a ride.”
Katie DeGrace said she was declared to be in remission from cancer on Feb. 27, 2007. “This February was my 10th year cancer-free, so that was very, very exciting,” DeGrace said.
“Kaitlyn (DeGrace) has been very sick before, and she’s been around very sick kids at a young age,” Kathy Prout said. “She gets it. It’s the same with Larry Jr.
“They get it. They know what life’s about, and what’s important.”
DeGrace believes kindness carries power.
“When I was 10 years old I didn’t really understand the full consequences of what it meant to have stage IV cancer,” she said. “Also, at the same time, I think my parents and my family and my amazing support system also played a huge factor in that. My parents’ faith is absolutely phenomenal, and because of the kindness and generosity of the people around me, I never felt like a little girl who was dying. …
“I think the amazing role models that I had in my life – who were such amazing and hopeful spirits around me – really played a big part in my recovery.”
Despite Larry Prout Jr.’s own numerous health issues – such as seven back surgeries this summer alone – the teenager is drawn to supporting others with health problems, his mother said.
“He’s a very empathetic kid,” Kathy Prout said. “He really wants to know details, and know how you’re doing, and he’s glad you’re doing well. My husband teaches special education and Larry really likes my husband’s students. A lot of them have cognitive impairments, or autism, or Down syndrome. Larry’s very interested and really likes to help and make sure people are OK.”
DeGrace calls Larry Prout Jr. a “very sweet kid” and she spent Valentine’s Day with him earlier this year. She figures her friend, particularly as a fan of the Michigan Wolverines, will enjoy the vehicle she once relished riding around her neighborhood and yard as a girl.
“On the wheel it says ‘GIVEStrong, LIVEStrong, LOVEStrong.’ It has maize seats and the body is painted blue. It’s quite sharp,” DeGrace said.
Gifts, however, come in forms other than a golf cart, or cash, or gift cards. Katie DeGrace said she views her connection with the Prout family as a reward.
“The entire Prout family, and especially Larry, are such a huge blessing in my life,” DeGrace said. “The only thing I can use to explain this is God himself. Larry is such an inspiration. He is so strong and so courageous. I’ve never met someone who is so kind and thoughtful toward someone else.”