10/28/18 Coach, athlete and motivational speaker with muscular dystrophy is hailed for helping others

A life of purpose

Josh Cranfill, an athlete himself, is a coach and motivator for other athletes.

Submitted photo

Josh Cranfill, an athlete himself, is a coach and motivator for other athletes.

Coach, athlete and motivational speaker with muscular dystrophy is hailed for helping others
By Alexandria Gaines, The Times-News 10/28/18     
Reprinted with permission.  

At 14 months old, Josh Cranfill was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and not expected to live past 2 years old.

Now 34, he is using his story to inspire those around him.

You might see him assistant coaching on the sidelines at a Western Alamance High School football game, at a poker tournament somewhere across the nation, or at an N.C. Electric Wheelchair Hockey game. Regardless of where he is, he is always trying to affect people.

Cranfill credits his family for helping him get through all the health obstacles he has faced with muscular dystrophy. He has gone through risky surgeries, and always included in the difficult conversations with doctors about how close he may have been to death.

“By my parents being so brutally honest with me at a young age and treating me the same as everyone else, it forced me to understand who I was and who I wanted to be,” Cranfill said.

Surgeries, physical therapy and medication can help some muscular dystrophy patients, but there is no cure for the disease. Cranfill stopped physical therapy at 10 because he no longer felt it was beneficial, and he does not take medication.

“I am physically weak, but I can carry the weight of the world,” Cranfill said. “I’ve come to realize that my mind and mindset are my greatest assets. I’m never going to be physically strong, but that doesn’t mean I have to be mentally weak.”


Cranfill could not name specific moments that put him on the path of affecting people with talks and speeches, but he recalled many times he felt he had changed someone’s life.

“I first started noticing I was having a positive impact a few years after I started with the Western Alamance football team. Players have gone through the program, graduated and moved on, but they see me at a game or out in public and will remind me of something I said that inspired or helped them through something,” Cranfill said.

Coaches have come to him mentioning a specific player dealing with something personal and asked whether he could take time to talk with them. That helped him recognize his responsibility as a role model.

When he was younger, Cranfill was shy and never went out of his way to answer questions in class or include his opinion in discussions. He hated speaking in front of class and avoided it at all costs.

“With muscular dystrophy, I sound different, and people have a hard time understanding me, so I end up having to repeat myself. I was never embarrassed of how I talk, I just hate repeating myself, so I wouldn’t say much,” Cranfill said.

That all changed when he went to Elon University. Presentations and speaking in front of the class is a regular requirement at colleges and universities, so Cranfill was “forced to be uncomfortably comfortable.”

He turned his nerves into confidence and went from not wanting to speak to being the first to volunteer. Cranfill spoke about one of his professors at Elon, Jim Drummond, who was tough, rigid and always challenged the way he thought, and put him and other students in awkward situations during and outside of class.

“One day after class I was last to leave, and he spoke up, saying, ‘Mr. Cranfill, you have a different story and a different way you look at life. Remember, it’s not about how much you say, it’s about what you say and when you say it. People will listen.’ That’s when I looked at my voice in an entirely different way,” Cranfill said.

After graduating from Elon, Cranfill was given opportunities to speak on different occasions. Most of his speeches were motivational, and he did everything for free to get his name out there.

Now, he has widened his audiences and broadened his topics, and he is sought to speak at several at Elon, Winston-Salem State University, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

At WSSU, he spoke about how different therapies may or may not be best for an individual patient, and how to relate with patients to get the maximum achievable outcome.

“The most important message I have tried to explain was that they will learn all the knowledge for every situation, but treating a person on a personal level will never be found in a book. They need to take time to figure out on an individual level what works for that individual,” Cranfill said.

His most recent speech was at Elon, to first-year Physician Assistant students, about treating patients with a chronic illness from pediatrics to adult care. As a big sports fan, he told them the essence of team is most important to provide and ensure a desired outcome when dealing with patients and families with chronic illnesses.

Listening to the patient

Dr. Diane Duffy, a physician at Elon, was one of the professors who had Cranfill come speak to her students. Before becoming a professor, Duffy was one of Cranfill’s doctors. He was one of her patients during her residency at Chapel Hill and when she began her career at Burlington Pediatrics.

“One of the things that I learned from Josh was the importance of the patient provider relatioship , specifically that patients need to be able to participate in the decision-making process,” Duffy said.

Duffy mentioned how for Josh, since he was not expected to live past 2 years old, it took several years to find a doctor to listen, understand his needs and respect them. He tells her students about that difficulty and how, if you do not know the answer, you should say that because your patient might know the answer.

“My students also got the chance to ask questions. It was a safe place for our students to ask him questions that they might not have felt comfortable asking somebody,” Duffy said.

Alexis Moore, an assistant professor of Physician Assistant Studies at Elon, has been inviting Cranfill to speak to her class for six years.

“One of the things that makes Elon different is they really emphasize patientcentered communication,” Moore said. “We try to make, create a real time application for things.”

Making it real

Moore talked about bringing Cranfill to her class to “bring the patient to them,” and how he is very open with answering questions not only about his illness, but about his personal life as well.

“They can ask questions, and ask him, ‘Do you have a romantic life?’ You know, ‘How do you feel with these other phases of your growth?’ And I mean, he tells them plain he has no shortage in attracting women,” Moore said with a laugh.

Another topic Cranfill touches on with Moore’s class is having to be strong mentally.

“He talks about the moment when he realized, this is what he was given in life, and so there was a purpose for that. So this was his piece of the world, or piece of the globe, and to stop longing for it to change or be different, that it was like this for a reason, and what was he going to do with that,” Moore said.

Moore has not only seen her students evolve over the years but Cranfill as well. She sees her students learning from him, but he also learns from the students.

“In lieu of a lot of previous medical experiences, a lot of what would influence you about medicine is idealistic. I think Josh makes it real for them,” Moore said.

Honest communication

With her students being young and most likely not seeing death in front of them, Cranfill has learned to make it an integral part of his talks with her class. Moore said he creates an atmosphere in which he is comfortable enough with himself and his life to talk about death, and that the students are comfortable having that conversation as well.

Cranfill described his style of speaking as “extremely honest.” He wants to challenge his audiences’ way of thinking and hopes to offer new information or knowledge they can use in their daily lives or careers. One thing he is not afraid to talk about is the tough subject: death.

“When I speak to doctors, nurses or others in the medical field, death and dying must come up. Whether they like it or not, death is always an option and eventually an end for us all,” Cranfill said. “When I speak to athletes, as an athlete they may have the skill and talent it takes to be successful, but if he/she doesn’t put in the necessary work, they will never be successful.”

Along with high school and college students, Cranfill enjoys visiting elementaryage students because it is most likely the first time these students have been exposed to someone with a disability.

Jaime Herman, a teacher at Elon Elementary School, invited Josh to visit her class on many different occasions for two years before she moved districts. During his first visit, he allowed the students to ask him questions about his wheelchair, his life and anything else he is open to talk about.

“At one point they discussed how the ramp outside to the playground meant Josh could join them outside,” Jaime said. “He came during recess at times and played games with the students. … It was so fun seeing the students move with him, and they took great joy in being the ones that knew what he needed.”

Cranfill mentioned how the students at the elementary schools often begin to forget that he has a disability and see him only as a person.

Herman talked about one of the most memorable visits they had from Josh being Christmas-themed. Cranfill and his nurse brought lights and decorations to the classroom.

“When they told the students they were going to decorate Josh’s chair like a Christmas tree, the students burst into celebration. We wrapped lights around his wheelchair, and each child got to choose where to put some ornaments. They were physically interacting with his chair. It was a beautiful thing to see,” Herman said.

Helping others

Cranfill also likes to make himself available to families that have disabled children. He tries to explain through his own experiences how to cope and deal with the reality of their situation.

Trish Naylor is one of those parents. Her son Drake has a rare chromosome abnormality that has left him to use a wheelchair. He has no verbal skills, and he has trouble controlling his muscles and his movements.

“I was always in fear that my son was in pain, and I didn’t know what was going on. … Josh was like a voice for Drake,” Naylor said.

She has talked to Cranfill a lot throughout the years when she’s had fears about her son’s breathing or airway issues, and he provided her with his point of view and how he felt dealing with different things with his own illness.

Her son recently had rods put into his back, and Naylor struggled with knowing whether this was the right decision.

“The doctors help guide you. … You still have to make a decision of ‘Is this in his best interest for the longevity of his life?’ Josh just had such an inspirational way with words of encouraging me as a mom of you make the best choices you can knowing you’re doing what’s right for your son, and don’t look back, don’t second-guess yourself,” Naylor said.

Naylor said he has been extremely helpful with helping her see and feel what her son might be seeing and feeling since her son is unable to communicate that with her.

“I make myself transparent so that they can better understand how their child feels about having a disability,” Cranfill said.

For her son’s last surgery, Cranfill talked to her about fear being a blessing and helping him make the tough decisions and not looking back on them. He does not see decisions as good and bad, but instead understands sometimes there are no good options for your decisions.

“My experience with other people or families dealing with similar issues as myself has been rewarding for me as well,” Cranfill said. “I have learned how to accept my disability and look at it as a positive because I can use my knowledge to make a different and hopefully pave an easier path for other families.”

To engage Josh Cranfill to speak, email him at josh_cranfill@yahoo.com, or find him on FaceBook.