A Sycamore man with a very rare disorder and who has become an inspiration to those who know him has earned a college degree from DeVry University at the age of 63.
Wayne Harrell cannot move his body at all without someone moving him. He only has full use of his hands. The first signs of his disorder, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), began to develop at about age nine or 10 when he broke his left elbow after falling out of a tree while playing. Although his arm healed, after the cast came off, it was frozen in the shape that it was in the cast. During this time, doctors didn’t know the exact cause or name of his condition, says Harrell’s mother, Galia Harrell, 84, who helps take care of him. She said they didn’t get a name until he was in ninth grade. She mentioned that at this age, Harrell’s jaw locked up, which is a common occurrence with FOP.
According to the International FOP Association website, FOP is one of the rarest, most disabling genetic conditions known to medicine. It causes bone to form in muscles, tendons, ligaments and other connective tissues. Bridges of extra bone develop across joints, progressively restricting movement and forming a second skeleton that imprisons the body in bone. There are no other known examples in medicine of one normal organ system turning into another.
Here are a few facts about FOP from the website:
- Genetic disease affecting 1 in 2 million people
- No ethnic, racial or gender patterns
- 700 confirmed cases across the globe
- 185 known cases in the United States
- Characteristic malformations of the great toe
- Flare-ups occur spontaneously or following bodily trauma such as childhood immunizations, falls while playing, viral illnesses
- Misdiagnosed in a majority of cases as cancer
- Surgery makes the condition worse
- There are no effective treatments (however, research is being done on finding a cure and treatment for FOP)
Harrell said he was seeing a doctor in Atlanta but now sees a doctor in Tifton when necessary. Not until 2000 did he and his mother learn that someone from Atlanta also had FOP. They were able to find out more information about the disorder.
Although he cannot fully move his body and has been confined to a wheelchair since 1975, this hasn’t kept Harrell from earning his online Associate of Applied Science degree in web graphic design from DeVry University in February. He graduated with honors with a 3.82 grade point average.
In 2010, Harrell made the decision that he wanted to go to college, so he talked to some DeVry representatives. He started taking online classes the following year.
“I’ve always liked learning,” he said. “I enjoy learning new stuff every day.”
Harrell says he’s currently working on getting his bachelor’s degree in multimedia. He may even take it a step further by getting his master’s degree and then doctorate.
“I look at life as there’s nothing a person can’t do if they set their mind to it,” he said, noting he’s seeking to learn web graphic design, which he can do from his wheelchair. This gives him the opportunity to learn something and then in return, help others.
He says challenging and encouraging his nieces and nephews, friends and other young people in the community is something that he enjoys doing. He was asked to mentor first-year DeVry students by communicating with them through e-mail each week, because teachers were impressed with his work.
“It was a lot of fun to be able to encourage and see those students do well and see how their outlook changed,” Harrell said. “It’s rewarding to see you made a difference in somebody’s life.”
His advice to other students on how to get good grades is: “Carry your brain to class.”
He smiled and said, “I had some wisdom from God’s university before I started at DeVry University.”
He added, “I put in time. Your grades reflect the time that you put in to learn what you’re supposed to learn. You have to be disciplined. Since 2011, I haven’t watched more than an hour of television. Your primary job is to get that degree, because it’s going to mean something down the road.”
Harrell said it’s been a blessing having the people at DeVry University work with him in his condition. He said he loved going to school online. It helped with him learning more about how to use the computer and Internet. His first time using a computer was in 1977. He and his mother said DeAnna Pirkle and a group of young people at Bethel Baptist Church helped in getting him a large monitor by getting the word out. He ended up getting two monitors for schooling.
Also, Harrell holds the highest class amateur radio license available. Since 2004, he has talked to more than 25,000 contacts over his radio. His mother also has an amateur radio license. Harrell knows Morse code as well. He participated in the 13 colonies amateur radio event for the first time last year.
“My faith and trust in Jesus gives me hope and joy every day,” Harrell said. “Without my mother and family’s help, I could not do the things I do.”
Other than his mother and family, Ruby Dorsey with Accessible Home Health Care in Tifton also helps take care of him each day of the week.
“She’s a part of the family,” he said.
For more information on Harrell, visit his website at www.wayneharrell.com.
To contact reporter Latasha Everson, call 382-4321.