Eleven-year-old Travis Dudley loves to cuddle and laugh.
“He was meant to be our little boy,” said Kent Dudley, who with his wife, Shantel, has adopted four special-needs kids in the last six years.
Together, the Dudleys have 11 children, ranging in age from 7 to 31. They now are in the process of adopting again, expecting another special-needs child by summertime.
“It was a little overwhelming (at first),” Kent said. “There was a time when I asked, ‘Lord, are you sure?’”
But the couple said they now can’t imagine their life any differently.
“They’re all absolute miracles,” Shantel said of the children.
The Dudleys, who both have family members with special needs, starting talking about adopting special-needs children after a couple they knew adopted a little boy who was not expected to survive more than a few months but lived about two and a half years.
“We kind of wanted this house full of Down’s kids,” Shantel said.
But then they were matched with Travis.
Travis has severe neurological impairments, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and hydrocephalus – excess spinal fluid on the brain – and has multiple seizures a day. He is nonverbal and doesn’t walk. Developmentally, he is about the same as a 6- to 9-month-old infant.
At one point, doctors told the Dudleys there was nothing left to be done and Travis was placed in hospice care.
Kent recalled how one night, he and Shantel put him to bed, unsure if he would wake up.
“The next morning, I opened his door and he was sitting up in his crib … looking around and talking to himself,” Kent said. “It was like a miracle had happened overnight.”
Still, he faced numerous obstacles, including his hydrocephalus, which has caused him to endure more than 50 shunt surgeries to direct excess spinal fluids to an area of the body that can manage it.
But standard shunt placements – in the abdominal, heart or chest cavity – no longer were effective for him after a certain point.
In 2008, Travis underwent a rare surgery at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul to address his shunt difficulties. Dr. Patrick Graupman, a pediatric neurosurgeon who coincidentally grew up in Bemidji, placed a shunt directly into Travis’ gall bladder.
“He had just gotten to the point where … he really had run out of options,” Graupman said in a phone interview.
The surgery is so rare there are just eight documented cases of it being done in the world. Travis, who before had been going in for shunt revisions every six months, has not stepped inside a hospital since.
“We’re pretty excited about that,” Graupman said.
Still, Travis still faces significant health challenges.
“We’re thankful for each and every day that he is doing well,” Kent said.
Meanwhile, about 18 months after Travis was adopted, the Dudleys adopted again. In July 2008, they brought home Victoria, now 8 years old.
“We fell in love when we first saw her,” Shantel said.
“She was a gem from the very get-go,” Kent added.
Victoria has health issues similar to Travis, but has adapted to her new home.
“Now she’s singing right along with us and stealing the show,” Shantel said.
The Dudleys, led by Kent, help make up the Bended Knee musical band. At a concert last fall, with 750-some people in the audience, Vitoria sang her own versions of “Jesus Loves Me” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
“She’s our butterfly,” Kent said.
After Victoria came Vonte. At 9 years old, he loves monster trucks and occasionally plays harmonica.
When the Dudleys first met him, Vonte was in a wheelchair about 90 percent of the time, but six months after coming to Minnesota, Vonte was flying down the driveway on his bicycle.
“He has just really come out of his shell,” Shantel said. “He used to lie in his room all the time and not really interact or play much, But he’s out all the time now, sometimes playing harmonica with the band.
“He’s a ladies’ man; all the girls love him. He’s definitely the charmer in our family.”
Two years ago, the Dudleys adopted Kiah, now 7, who was a foster sister to Vonte, and had been scheduled to be institutionalized due to her complex medical and behavioral issues.
She was “uncontrollable” then, but as the couple got to know her they bonded, strongly, with her and she with them.
“They told us (Kiah) would never bond with us, never make eye contact, but she is just a hoot,” Kent said.