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KIDS WITH COURAGE: Gillian Kunkel

Gillian loves her time in kindergarten. However, the last several months haven’t been the smoothest in terms of her health.
Updated: Mar. 30, 2022 at 10:00 PM CDT
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ZUMBRO FALLS, Minn. (KTTC) -- KTTC is honored to introduce viewers monthly to some of the youngest among us, facing the unthinkable with bravery and optimism. In our 19th “Kids With Courage” segment, Caitlin Alexander introduces us to 7-year-old Gillian Kunkel.

Gillian has an excellent taste in movies, with Disney’s Encanto and Tangled currently topping the list.

When her mom, Nicole, asked her if she loved Rapunzel, she exclaimed, “I do!”

Gillian and Rapunzel poster
Gillian and Rapunzel poster(KTTC)

She also loves her time in kindergarten.

However, the last several months haven’t been the smoothest in terms of her health.

“The last 10 months have been pretty challenging, just with additional testing since we haven’t really figured out what is going on with Gillian,” Nicole said.

Gillian was born in November 2014.

Even before that, her parents knew she had Trisomy 21, Down Syndrome.

“We knew prior to her being born that she was going to have to have heart surgery. So, at four months old, she had heart surgery,” Nicole said.

Since then, she’s kept up with various specialties that often accompany Down Syndrome, but she’s done wonderfully.

She has welcomed two younger sisters.

It wasn’t until last year that things took a bizarre turn.

Her family told KTTC she woke up in April 2021 unable to walk.

First, it was a septic hip then pain in her other leg.

Then the whole family, minus Gillian’s dad, David, contracted COVID-19.

All of this was followed by different issues at different points in time, like recurrent fevers, rashes, lymph node enlargement, and abdominal pain.

“In her case, it hasn’t necessarily been the same symptoms that keep reoccurring that we don’t have an answer for,” said Mayo Clinic Pediatric Rheumatologist Dr. Amir Orandi.

He said these different symptoms have led to lots of tests and unanswered questions.

Specialists are working to identify whatever is going on with Gillian, anywhere from an auto immune disease to even a malignancy.

But through it all, Gillian remains way more focused on the good.

Gillian thumbs up at the hospital
Gillian thumbs up at the hospital(KTTC)

“She just keeps going,” David said.

“Even though she’s got active symptoms or something, if she’s well enough to play, she wants to play,” Dr. Orandi said.

Like the characters in her favorite movies, she remains resilient, smart, and strong.

“That’s what makes her a kid with courage is she keeps being so uplifting,” Nicole said.

Gillian with her mom
Gillian with her mom(KTTC)

March 21st marked Down Syndrome Awareness Day. Our March Kid With Courage and her family have dedicated many hours to supporting other families touched by Down Syndrome, delivering baskets and answering questions.

If there is a Kid With Courage Caitlin should meet, email her at kidswithcourage@kttc.com.

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