I first learned of 14-year-old Joe Griffin of DeFuniak Springs, Florida, in 2006. After reading my column in the Walton (Fla.) Sun, he and his mother talked with me over the telephone nearly an hour. Surprisingly, what I remember most about him was his responding “yes sir” and “no sir” to my questions. Nowadays, you don’t often find such good manners in kids.
As for his disability: At age 2 on July 13, 1998, Joe and his sisters were watching television while on a bed. He fell off the bed backwards and immediately his left arm went limp. At Fort Walton Medical Center, doctors determined he had a spinal cord injury and soon he was paralyzed from the neck down. Only his facial muscles moved. Today, he has feeling from the shoulders up along with some torso and leg movement. To get around, he uses an electric wheelchair.
In a telephone interview last week, I asked Griffin if he was still writing and doing art. “Writing, no sir, but art, yes,” said Griffin. “As for art, I recently (copied) a ‘flower bridge’ painting that was in National Geographic. I don’t know why that painting intrigued me so much, but it was very interesting and fun to paint. I painted it for a good friend.”
In 2006, during our last interview, I learned Florida’s lieutenant government had selected Griffin’s artwork for her 2004 holiday card. In 2005, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation selected his artwork for its holiday card and calendar.
As for the latter, judges chose his artwork “blindly,” meaning they didn’t know about his disability. Griffin paints using a brush connected to a wooden dowel that is duct-taped to his visor. He moves his head up and down to make brush strokes.
Besides art, back in 2006 at age 9, he was also winning local and state writing competitions.
Recently, this June, Griffin was facing a serious medical condition. Due to his spinal cord injury, he had developed a 96-degree curvature of his spine. Without corrective surgery, doctors said he may have only two years to live because the curvature was damaging key organs. Then Griffin’s mother received the telephone call that Philadelphia Shriners Hospital and Dr. Amer Samdani, world-renowned neurosurgeon, were ready to begin Griffin’s 12-hour surgery.
Next week, learn more about Griffin’s recent accomplishments and his operation.