Health & Fitness

Spinal surgery at Miami Project stopped Michael Graves’ paralysis from advancing

Michael Graves in 2007 in his apartment at 1500 Ocean Dr. in Miami Beach, a condo tower he designed. After he was paralyzed from the waist down in 2003, he was treated at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Michael Graves in 2007 in his apartment at 1500 Ocean Dr. in Miami Beach, a condo tower he designed. After he was paralyzed from the waist down in 2003, he was treated at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Miami Herald File

Michael Graves had just returned from a business trip in Europe in 2003 when he woke up in his Princeton, New Jersey, home and couldn’t feel his legs.

A virus had attacked his spinal cord and it was moving up the column, affecting his arm movement, and if left unchecked, the brain of the celebrated architect, known locally for designing 1500 Ocean Dr.

Enter Dr. Barth Green, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and co-founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which specializes in treating people with spinal cord injuries. Graves, who died last week at age 80, would live a full life over the next 12 years despite his paralysis from the waist down — thanks to Green, Shake-A-Leg and his Miami friends.

Green went to see him at the behest of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Miami architect who had studied under Graves at Princeton and who recruited him to teach part time at the University of Miami School of Architecture when she was the dean. She and Frank Martinez, an associate professor at UM’s architecture school and a former graduate student of Graves, flew up to see him when they learned their former professor and good friend had become paralyzed.

“He was languishing in a rehab home,” said Plater-Zyberk.

She called Green, who made a special trip to see him. “I was going up to New York and made a house call.”

Green persuaded Graves to come to Miami and to be treated at the Miami Project. He did, and Green operated on him almost immediately. The surgery took nearly 12 hours.

“The virus was ascending up his spinal cord. He was beginning to lose the ability to move his arms and hands,” Green said. “We released some of the adhesions and blockages so he regained the use of his hands and arms. The infection had risen up to his neck, threatening to go to his brain.”

While Green could not reverse the damage the virus had done to his lower spinal column — resulting in Graves’ paralysis from the waist down — he and his team of doctors at the Miami Project could keep the virus from doing any further damage.

Through his treatment with Green and his involvement with Shake-A-Leg, the sailing program in Coconut Grove that helps people with spinal cord injuries to sail and rebuild their lives, Graves lived a full life over the next 12 years. He continued to design buildings — his firm designed more than 400 buildings. He taught at UM. And he embarked on a new career, designing furniture, equipment, hospital rooms and even houses for injured returning veterans as part of the Wounded Warrior Project.

“He became a super-specialist in adaptive universal design, which means you can go into a house, an office building, a courthouse — and you can get where you want to go, no matter your challenges,” Green said. “He became a voice among architects for disabled consumers.”

He also became a prominent voice for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, speaking at dinners in New York and raising funds and awareness through his partnership with Target.

He also returned to teaching part time at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He first joined UM after retiring from Princeton University, where he had taught for nearly 40 years, in 2001.

While he was recovering and being treated by Green, Graves started talking with Martinez about leading a studio program in Rome for UM students studying architecture there. Graves had won the Rome Prize in 1960 and studied at the American Academy in Rome for two years.

It took about a year to plan the project, with Martinez traveling to Rome several times to map out the city, figure out where Graves would live, how he would get around, the studio’s accessibility, etc.

In the end, they taught the class in Rome in 2013, 10 years after Graves’ paralysis. Graves, who was 77 at the time, was thrilled to have returned to Rome, a city that had a transformative effect on him after studying there for two years early in his career. It was his first time back since his paralysis.

“It really was quite an adventure,” Martinez said. “Delightful days, wonderful lunches and dinners and he loved taking me and the students to all his favorite places. He wanted us to see all the beautiful buildings and to see the studio where he had studied.”

They had such a fabulous time that they were making plans to teach another course there this fall. Martinez had just called Graves about a week before his death and told him the program had been approved.

Said Martinez: “When I told him we were a go for Rome, he said, ‘Terrific. We’re going to Rome.’”