Wisconsin man paints with his mouth following accident

December 16, 2017

In this Nov. 21, 2017, Ben Karr paints using only his mouth in Beloit, Wis. In 2005 Karr was paralyzed after he jumped off a friend's boat and ended up broke his neck. Karr has learned how to do what he once thought was the impossible - picking up his love for painting again - by using his mouth. (Ryan Silvola/The Beloit Daily News via AP)

BELOIT, Wis. (AP) — Picking up a paintbrush and pencil is something Beloit resident Ben Karr never thought he would be able to do again.

However, over the last two years, Karr, 36, has learned how to do what he once thought was the impossible — picking up his love for painting again — by using his mouth.

In 2005, he jumped off a friend’s boat and ended up breaking his neck. A previous article in the Beloit Daily News reported that Karr had done belly flops in the same place in the Rock River off the same boat for years, but this time he moved his head the wrong way.

“There was a sandbar and I just didn’t get far enough to protect myself,” Karr said. “I hit my head on the sand and was instantly paralyzed. My buddy was on the boat and his sister...they are pretty much the reason I’m alive now.”

Karr’s best friend Hank Baumann, and buddy Ryan Wachsmuth, lifted him into the boat while Baumann’s sister, Becky, started doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation along with another woman who saw the accident and jumped in to help. The boat sped to Preservation Park where rescue workers took over.

“Your world gets turned upside down,” Karr said. “It changes the way you think. Even when you want to be positive, sometimes you do it just for friends and family, and when they see me being strong, holding it together, it helps them also. If they saw me falling apart they would totally do the same. So I try to always think about the positives in everything.”

After his accident in June of 2005, he knew that Father’s Day was coming up and he needed to fill out a card.

“Right then I signed my name on a card for my dad,” Karr said. “It was the first time I put a pen in my mouth. You could clearly see B-E-N. Luckily I have a short name.”

After that he colored in a squirrel and flower out of a coloring book. The finished product is still hanging up in his room as a reminder of all the progress he’s made. He now paints all kinds of trees and flowers. It can be difficult, as one shiver can lead to a catastrophic mistake. He paints with a biting stick that has a paint brush taped to it, with a stand holding up the canvas and paint supply. Nurses or family stand by to prepare the paint for Karr.

Karr has to paint in bed since there aren’t tables that are the right dimensions for him to be able to completely get his wheelchair under. So far, Karr has completed about 10 paintings.

Before his accident, Karr was a firefighter and EMT with an associate’s degree in fire science from Blackhawk Technical College. He also loved to create his own artwork, do construction and play sports.

“I never quit a sport,” Karr said. “I didn’t like defeat. I would always finish a sport, then decide later if I wanted to take it up again.”

Karr’s accident made him quadriplegic. He can only move his head and shoulders. However, that doesn’t mean he’s given up.

“It’s easier to tell people what I hadn’t broken,” Karr said. “I was always in every single sport, so it’s a little harder life, but it’s still worth living. Nothing’s going to change that. There’s too much good out there.”

This positivity didn’t always come so easy to Karr, though.

It was a long road to get back to his determined mindset he had before the accident.

“It’s gloomy on some days, but a lot of the other days make up for it,” Karr said.

He enjoys going to see family and friends as much as possible, often seeing his brother’s children who live right down the road. In all, Karr has four brothers and two sisters. He’s also close with his mother, Julie, who retired from General Motors and went back to school to be a nurse to take care of her son after his accident.

Each morning, caregivers come in and stretch Karr muscles to help prevent spasms. Then Karr gets cleaned up, dressed, moved from the bed into the chair. The routine can take up to four hours.

When done preparing for the day, Karr will go shopping, attend car shows, watch his niece and nephew play sports or even go to a Sonic Boom concert.

“I can go do anything I want to,” Karr said.

Helping people has always been a goal for Karr, and he was able to sell boxes he painted as part of a fundraiser last summer for fellow Beloit resident Aiden Dunn, a boy who is battling brain cancer. Karr sold boxes he painted, and all of the proceeds went to charity.

Karr said the event really helped get his name out there and he has set up Facebook to display his work. Karr has considered starting a business, but painting primarily serves another purpose for Karr.

“It’s therapy, knowing that I can still do something I used to do and love, it helps me a lot,” Karr said. “People are now commenting on my pictures and people wanting pictures. It brightens your day. It helps remind people that I’m still the same guy. I just look a little different.”

He said it’s just always positive to find something he can do without help.

“I have to ask people to do things like scratch my nose, and people take that for granted,” Karr said. “People are like ‘You used to be such an active guy. Do you miss it?’ I would just like to be able to scratch my nose. Nothing big, just scratch my nose. I don’t care that I can’t play sports anymore. That wasn’t my whole life. I’d still like it, but small victories can seem very big.”


Information from: Beloit Daily News, http://www.beloitdailynews.com

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