When Dawn Garrigus’ parents and doctor approached her about taking advantage of her Make-A-Wish eligibility, the 11-year-old Statesboro girl had a few, very specific wishes.
One: She wanted to go to Dragon Con, the huge science fiction and fantasy convention that takes place in Atlanta each year on Labor Day weekend. Two: She wanted to dress up as her favorite “Star Trek” character, Spock, and maybe a few superheroes too. Three: She wanted to attend one of the “Star Trek” panel discussions.
She did not specify that she wanted to meet actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who plays her favorite Enterprise captain, Jean-Luc Picard. She also said nothing about wanting to become a minor Internet celebrity when the picture of her hugging Stewart went viral. But thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the staff at Dragon Con and Stewart himself, Dawn received all of this and a little extra — a newfound confidence and bravery when navigating social situations, which, for her, can be a frightening frontier.
Dawn has mitochondrial disease, a degenerative illness that begins at the cellular level and affects the heart, brain, muscles and other organs and internal systems. For Dawn, it causes seizures and fatigue, meaning that she has to be careful and conservative about how she spends her energy. Rather than going to school, she receives tutoring through the Georgia Board of Education’s homebound program. The disease also causes neurological difficulties, which make it hard for her to communicate with and relate to other people.
However, when it came to meeting the man who played one of her heroes, Dawn didn’t let her natural shyness hold her back. After hearing that a Make-A-Wish child and “Star Trek” fan would be attending Dragon Con, Stewart arranged to have a private meet-and-greet with Dawn and gave her 15 minutes of his undivided attention before the “Star Trek” panel.
“He just talked to her until she was comfortable and started talking back to him,” said Kristy Garrigus, Dawn’s mother. She and her husband, Danny — a public safety investigator at Georgia Southern University — had kept the meeting a secret until the very last moment. “They talked about so many different things — from his train ride down to allergies, a little bit of her medical stuff, who she liked the best on ‘Star Trek.’”
During his conversation with Dawn, Stewart signed a few Picard pictures for her, along with her “Star Trek” action figures. Just before they said goodbye, Dawn threw her arms around Stewart in a spontaneous hug, which Stewart returned. Photographer James Barker, who was hired by Dragon Con to photograph the event, captured the image that would soon go viral.
“It was just a really genuine, really human moment,” Barker said of the photograph. “I think her emotion — you can just see it on her face. And I think he was a little surprised and very pleased.”
He added, “It was really neat to be part of that moment.”
Photo goes viral
Since Barker posted the picture on his Facebook page, the photo has received more than 3,500 likes and 1,300 shares. Thanks to the picture, the story has been picked up by social media and news outlets all over the world. Garrigus said she and Dawn have answered questions from people as far as away as Germany, England and Canada. The story has been reprinted in several different languages and has appeared in notable U.S. outlets like Buzzfeed, E! Online and The Huffington Post. Garrigus called the experience “surreal.”
Most of those outlets have reported one of the sweeter moments of the meeting: Stewart told Dawn that every time she saw him in one of his films or television appearances, she could wave at him and say, “Hello, Patrick,” assuring her that wherever he was, he would know she was talking to him and would say “Hello, Dawn” right back.
“And that just made her day,” Garrigus said. “And she does it every single time!”
Stewart may not have known how deeply Dawn would take his words to heart, because she has wasted no opportunity to take him up on his offer. In the week after Dragon Con, Dawn was laid up with a case of strep throat and spent a lot of time watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and she waved to Stewart every time he appeared on screen. Garrigus said that she has heard Dawn talking to Stewart on the TV beyond just a wave and a greeting — and, for Dawn, this is a very positive experience.
“The minute she feels lonely, the minute she doesn’t feel good or feels lonely, she’ll go and watch a video with Patrick Stewart in there, and she’ll talk to him,” Garrigus said. “In our eyes, it’s alleviated some of the loneliness and some of that detachment she feels.”
Not only does it make Dawn feel like she has a friend she can see at the click of a button, but it’s helped her open up to other people as she tells her story. While she is still shy around new people, she warms quickly to conversation when she has the chance to talk about her friend Sir Patrick.
“The whole experience has helped her figure out a way to connect with people and to talk to people in general, which is difficult for her,” Garrigus said.
A special connection
Dawn herself was eager and excited to talk about Stewart in her interview. She said that meeting him was an all-caps “AWESOME” experience. She talked about starting to watch “X-Men,” another film franchise in which Stewart has acted, and comparing his character Professor X to Captain Picard. Of Stewart himself, Dawn said, “He’s very nice — I can say that. Very, very nice.”
And when it comes to her status as a minor Internet celebrity, Dawn said: “I like it a lot, but I do not want people coming up with pictures of me asking for autographs. I do not sign autographs. Just to friends, but not to other strange people.”
The meeting, of course, has not changed Dawn’s diagnosis. Medically, her mother said, “She is what she is. Unfortunately, it’s a progressive degenerative disease, so that’s the way it is.”
The change her parents have noticed in their daughter has been “a mental difference,” and while it is not a cure, it is, in their minds, an improvement. Dawn is more cheerful these days, and more talkative. The family gave a special shout-out to Patrick Stewart through The Huffington Post to express their gratitude: “You have made a mark on her and our life that will never be forgotten!”
Brittani Howell may be reached at (912) 489-9405.