Brian Griffith wore two gowns at this Hardaway High School graduation ceremony Friday. And he was the only student in attendance.
Hospitalized with a mysterious condition, Brian couldn’t join his 2018 classmates at the official version in the Columbus Civic Center. But thanks to the extra effort from some caring officials, he still received his diploma cover that night -- with a special ceremony in his hospital room at Piedmont Columbus Regional’s midtown campus.
So on top of his hospital gown, Brian donned his graduation gown. Although he still was hooked to an IV, he proudly posed for photos amid the two dozen relatives and friends crammed into his hospital room, along with balloons and other decorations.
“It’s overwhelming,” Brian’s mother, Sunkela Griffith, told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Wednesday as she recalled the special ceremony. “It’s bittersweet.”
Bitter because doctors still haven’t figured out the cause of Brian’s illness. Headaches two weeks ago. Then a rash. Then peeling skin. Then a fever. Then pain so bad he couldn’t walk May 21, when he was admitted to the hospital.
“We still don’t know what’s going on with him,” Sunkela said.
But sweet because Brian can walk now and his fever broke in time for him enjoy his special graduation ceremony.
The idea for the ceremony came from the pediatric case manager Dona Frye, child life specialist Kelsey Walker and Brian’s team of nurses in the hospital after doctors determined he wasn’t healthy enough to participate in Hardaway’s graduation ceremony, which started at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
“We wanted to try to celebrate his graduation and make him feel special,” Frye said.
So she called Hardaway principal Matt Bell.
“Mr. Bell was so receptive,” Frye said.
As soon as they finished their graduation duties at the Columbus Civic Center, Bell, boys basketball coach Kendall Mills and Muscogee County School District region chief James Wilson – still in their caps and gowns – drove to the hospital to conduct the special ceremony for Brian. MCSD superintendent David Lewis had to stay at the civic center for the ensuing graduation, but he participated in Brian’s ceremony via speaker phone.
Watching the precious scene unfold in her son’s hospital room, Sunkela said, “I was in disbelief. I was so ecstatic. For so many people to care like that, for people to reach out and care that much, I mean, wow.”
Mills explained his motivation.
“Sometimes we take graduation for granted,” Mills said. “… But when something comes up and you’re not able to be there, it’s a special moment when you can do something else instead.”
Walker ensured Brian and his guests had his favorite ice cream cake to make the celebration even sweeter.
“It was the first time I’d seen him smile since he’s been here,” Walker said.
“That lifted his spirits,” Sunkela said.
Frye and Walker emphasized their idea was more powerful because the school officials enthusiastically attended.
“Hardaway was wonderful,” Frye said. “We could have brought decorations and cake and had a party for him, but for them to come and present his diploma, it came full circle.”
Brian, who played point guard for the Hawks, is “just a good kid,” Mills said. “I love him to death. I hope he gets healthy.”
Sunkela, a single mother with three children, is the housekeeping supervisor at the LaQuinta Inn on Macon Road. Brian works at the Overflo Barber Shop on Midtown Drive and is “talking about joining the Air Force,” she said.
But first, he must get healthy. That might require being transferred to a hospital in Atlanta, his mother said.
“I’m glad we have a good support system,” she said, “but I’m just leaving it in God’s hands now.”