Thursday, May 10, 2001

Joey Newcomb

A life lesson from MSJ senior

        Joey Newcomb's shoes are scuffed. From hard use. This is a sight I never dreamed I would see when we first met. He was motionless under starched white sheets at Drake Hospital, just days after a diving accident in a backyard pool.

        Joey hit the water, after he twisted in midair and “landed funny.” His fifth vertebrae was crushed. And suddenly this 16-year-old wrestler and soccer player couldn't move. Not at all.

        He never lost consciousness, and his friends rolled him over so he could breathe. Then they stood in the shallow water, three on each side, one at his head, holding him perfectly still. Somebody else called 911.

        This happened Aug. 2, 1995, the summer before Joey's junior year at Elder High School. About two weeks later, when his therapist was stretching Joey's legs, "I was able to resist a little." He could move his arms. He had sensation in his legs. But those he couldn't move.

        Not yet.        

Skin on fire

        His spinal cord was damaged by a bone fragment, but not severed. Doctors couldn't say how far he would come back. Or when.

        Oh, and that “sensation” Joey talks about matter-of-factly sometimes took the form of something called spinal shock, hypersensitive nerves reacting to the injury. “It feels like your skin is on fire,” he says. “Sort of like when your foot falls asleep. Times 10.”

        Those same friends who carefully suspended him in the water never left his side. Plus a few dozen more. Students from Elder and Seton and Mercy and Oak Hills were constantly in and out of his room at Drake. And later, in and out of the Newcombs' Delhi Township house. Never a spectator in life, Joey was in his customary position. In the middle.        

Casserole patrol

        Some of this was made physically possible by friends and neighbors. Joe Newcomb Sr. is a Cincinnati firefighter at the station in Northside. He and his wife, Linda, live in a bilevel house. The men with Engine Company 20, Truck 5, converted half of the two-car garage into a suite with a bathroom. A lumber company donated wood for ramps. Bureaucrats cut red tape like crazy for building permits and easements. Money was raised for an elevator. A casserole patrol fed everybody, and elves dusted and vacuumed the house while Linda and Joe ran between work and the hospital.

        Meanwhile, Joey was working harder than anybody else. Forcing himself to move between parallel bars. Working through the “sensation.” He went back to school in a wheelchair, leaving mid-day for two or three hours of therapy. He accepted his diploma two years later. On his feet. Saturday, Joey will lean on a cane and walk up to accept his diploma from the College of Mount St. Joseph.

        “I'm happier now than I ever was before the accident,” he says. “I learned what's important. Friends. Family. And it made me notice the things I have going for me, rather than the things going against me. And I have goals.” One is to “get rid of the cane.”

        And I suppose he will. Or, if not, he will notice other things he has “going for” him. Limitless good cheer. Brains. Determination. Wit. He's also handsome and tall. Six feet? Ten? Whatever his height, I know I was looking up to him.

        Not for the first time.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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