Henry Fraser: The paralyzed man who paints with his mouth

01:27 - Source: CNN
Paralyzed man paints with his mouth
CNN  — 

He sits in his wheelchair, pencil in mouth, glancing at Stephen Hawking’s face on a piece of paper.

It’s not often Henry Fraser draws a figure from outside the sporting world, but Hawking is a man he has increasingly admired, perhaps not unsurprisingly given the challenges both men have faced.

Fraser had always excelled at sport – he’d spend hours playing rugby in the garden with his brothers Will, Tom and Dom – but a diving accident at the age of 17 paralyzed him from the shoulders down and his life would never be the same again.

“If it wasn’t for the accident then I’d probably be leading a very boring life at the moment – I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Fraser told CNN, a statement that reflects the 23-year-old’s remarkably positive outlook on life.

“I didn’t have a set plan for my future but my accident has given me opportunities I could only dream of and I’ve got to visit places and meet people I would 100% never have met if it wasn’t for the accident.”

Six years have passed since that fateful July day when Fraser was on holiday relaxing with friends on a beach in Portugal and deciding it was time to cool off with a dip he dived into the sea.

“In that moment, my whole life changed,” said Fraser. “I completely misjudged the dive and went into the seabed. I hit my head and blacked out for a few seconds.”

The accident broke the fourth vertebrae in his neck and Fraser quickly realized something wasn’t right when he couldn’t move his arms. “At that point I thought that was it – I was done.”

After being dragged to the shore by his friends, Fraser was flown by air ambulance to a Lisbon hospital, where doctors unsuccessfully attempted to realign his vertebrae.

“The doctor was pretty blunt about it and told me I’d never be able to use my arms or legs again,” said Fraser. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t really in the frame of mind where I could really process that – I was as ill as I could be.”

Fraser then contracted pneumonia and MRSA and says at one point his heart stopped beating seven times, before he was able to undergo a seven-hour operation to screw the vertebrae back into alignment.

Only then was he able to be flown back to England and continue his rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville hospital, which specializes in spinal injuries.

“I was taken around the hospital and we were about to go out of the entrance which comprised two big glass doors,” recalls Fraser. “It was the first time in two months that I’d seen my reflection. I was in shock. I had lost four stone.

“I was in a massive bulky wheelchair with an arm and head rest and I still had my tracheotomy in to help me breathe.

“That day I spent in tears. I just kept saying to myself, ‘Why me? Why me?’”

Fast forward six years and Fraser appears a man at ease with his life.

“I knew I had to find something deep in my mind to push through everything,” he said as he reflects on what the accident has taught him about himself.

It was that mental strength that enabled Fraser to return home from hospital after just six months, when doctors had predicted that wouldn’t happen for a year and a half.

His parents, Francesca and Andrew, have been at their son’s side all the way along with their three other children.

Fraser says the family have become even closer since the accident and he jokes that he’s become an easier target for teasing from his siblings – “I can’t get away as quickly anymore,” he quips.

It’s not difficult to see where Fraser’s artistic streak emanates from. His father is a graphic designer and his mother dabbles in interior design.

He lives in the family home, which is close to London, a beautifully and stylishly decorated house with all the facilities he requires.

The house is modern, full of color and warm, not just in decor, but also in temperature.

One of the effects of the accident is that Fraser’s body has lost its ability to have any control over his temperature.

In winter, he remains indoors as much as possible – a chill can leave him in bed for a week, while overheating can be a problem in the summer.

The family car and his bedroom always have the heaters blasting away in the winter, while he can only stand 30 minutes in the sun.

Fraser has a 24-hour live in carer and an elevator to transport him between his bedroom and the downstairs area where he likes to paint. Getting out of bed and dressed can take up to two hours every day.

It was while he was bedridden with illness earlier this year that he began to draw on his iPad with the help of a mouth stick.

He then progressed onto using a pencil, which he controls with his mouth.

The results have been startling and have made him into something of a celebrity, with Fraser’s paintings and drawings of the world’s most famous sports stars going down a storm on social media.

His first effort, a pencil drawing of Rory McIlroy moved the world’s No.1 golfer so much that he contacted Fraser and donated items to the charity golf day which the drawing was originally commissioned for.

He also sent Fraser the two 18th hole flags from his major wins at the 2014 Open Championship and U.S. PGA Championship at Valhalla.

Former French football international Thierry Henry, who met Fraser at an Arsenal game last season, tweeted out a photo of the pair along with the drawing, while Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt also retweeted a painting of himself.

Jonny Wilkinson and David Beckham are also huge admirers of Fraser’s work.

“It’s quite cool to be able to pick something to draw or paint and know that I can recreate it,” said Fraser. “With a pencil I can add a lot of detail and with paint I can bring a picture to life.”

Each and every movement or brush stroke is a very definitive movement – but it’s a lengthy process which Fraser enjoys immensely.

He talks with the pencil stick in his mouth, the stylus at the end doing the precise sketching, explaining that the watercolor paints are the easiest for him to use as he doesn’t have to constantly change brushes.

Fraser is careful in choosing his subjects.

Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill and two-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome have both had their portraits painted by Fraser, along with the likes of cyclist Chris Hoy and tennis star Roger Federer.

He is particularly keen on those who make their chosen sport look easy, who move with grace and glide through competition – hence Federer’s inclusion.

“It’s quite satisfying really,” explains Fraser as he reflects on his artwork. “It gives me another avenue to branch out and do something I’ve always loved doing.

“When I paint, I don’t draw anything out, I just go ahead straight ahead with the paintbrush.

“When I draw a picture, I only draw portraits. I only draw people’s faces. I like to be as detailed as possible and make it that person.

“I always start with the eyes because they’re a real giveaway of that person and then I’ll build up around there.

“I won’t put as much detail into the rest of the face but I’ll bring out what makes them in the picture.”

Such has been Fraser’s rise to prominence that he has been commissioned to provide illustrations for The Times Newspaper during the upcoming Rugby World Cup, which is being held in England and Wales later this year.

“It’s an honor to be able to do this kind of thing,” he says. “I hope to do a diary column and also a front cover – and then in October I have my own exhibition at my old college. It’s a busy time for me.”

It’s not just his art which has captured attention – his story has also resonated with plenty within the sporting world.

His determination to ensure he was not confined to a head controlled wheelchair when all the experts said he should be is a testament to his strength of character.

He has given speeches at a number of venues and even gave a motivational talk to the England cricket team earlier this year.

Fraser has already spoken with Stuart Lancaster, the head coach of England’s rugby union team, as well as a number of other sides.

He receives dozens of emails every day asking for advice from those who have friends or family struggling with their own problems.

Fraser recalls one email where a woman revealed she had given up drugs and drink after reading his story, citing him as an inspiration.

“Every day I wake up and look around and think what I’ve got is pretty amazing,” he says.

“Rather than look at everything I can’t do, I look at everything I can do and everything I have got and just think my life is pretty great.

“I have great people around me. I wake up every morning feeling grateful for everything I’ve got. That kind of drives me to push myself and get the most out of life as I possibly can.”