October 12, 2004
Christopher Reeve often said he wanted to be known for something other than playing Superman. But it was real life - not another movie role - that gave the actor the chance to star in his biggest drama: as a spinal cord injury victim championing research in hope that people like him would someday be able to walk again.
"He put a human face on the dreams," said Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. "He used his star power as a celebrity for a great good that transcends anything that most of us will ever achieve."
Reeve died Sunday after developing a serious bloodstream infection from a bedsore, a common problem for paralyzed people. He went into cardiac arrest Saturday at his home in Pound Ridge, N.Y., then fell into a coma, dying the next day at a hospital.
As an actor and a man, Reeve embodied strength and athleticism and performed his own movie stunts, including his 1978 starring role as Superman. It made him famous but he longed to, as he often put it, "escape the cape" and take on other characters.
Other movies and plays gave him that chance, but nothing compared to the horseback riding accident in 1995 that left him with a broken neck. His passionate efforts for science, often as he wheezed from a respirator in his wheelchair, are his greatest legacy, admirers said. Reeve never walked again but his dream of doing so is now a plausible one for thousands of others who are paralyzed.
"The biggest hope is in biological research to allow the spinal cord to heal itself and even regenerate. That's just over the horizon but closer than ever before. Most people feel within the next 10 to 15 years, somewhere within our lifetimes," said Dr. Jack Ziegler, president of the American Spinal Injury Association.
Some even thought it would come in time for Reeve.
"I thought it was going to happen," said Dr. Doug Kerr, a Johns Hopkins University neurologist who works with stem cells - controversial research that Reeve advocated.
"It was Star Wars science fiction, this concept of rewiring the nervous system," but Reeve "thrust this field forward by leaps and bounds," Kerr said.
Reeve endured years of therapy to allow him to breathe for longer periods without a respirator while seeking a cure that would allow him to walk again. He sparked hope even in many skeptics in 2000, when he was able to move an index finger. He thrust himself harder into workouts to strengthen his legs and arms, and electrical stimulation of his muscles allowed him to sporadically regain sensation in some other parts of his body.
As Reeve transformed his body, he also morphed into an advocate, first for better benefits for people with long-term disabilities, and then for science to help the 250,000 Americans who suffer paralysis. The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation has given $40 million to spinal cord research since he merged it with the American Paralysis Foundation in 1999.
Some of that has been for embryonic stem cell research, a promising but contentious field of medicine that the Bush administration has severely restricted because it involves destroying embryos. Scientists think these early, all-purpose cells can be coaxed to form nerves and specialized tissues to repair a host of woes.
Reeve and fellow actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, have helped make stem cells a major campaign issue between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Kerry even mentioned Reeve during the second presidential debate on Friday and praised him Monday in remarks before a speech in Santa Fe, N.M.
"He was an inspiration to all of us and gave hope to millions of Americans who are counting on lifesaving cures that science and research can provide," Kerry said. "In part because of his work, millions will one day walk again."
At Hopkins, research a few years ago demonstrated that stem cells could allow paralyzed mice and rats to do just that.
"This is one of the most difficult tasks you can ask a stem cell to do - to rewire, to extend axons and to form new connections at great distances to restore function," said Kerr. "We're clearly getting there."
Reeve "appropriately brought a sense of urgency to this issue," said Perry head of the research coalition, which favors stem cell science. "On Capitol Hill he was such a highly regarded figure and was so focused on the message."
A research center on paralytic spinal cord injuries, the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, was established in Reeve's name at the University of California, Irvine.
"He was such an immense personality, such a force in the field," said Dr. Oswald Stewart, the center's director. "He created an enthusiasm for what we do in the lab."
Reeve also reached out to people beyond those with spinal cord injuries.
"He was able to inspire hope in patients with diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease ... tragic and life-threatening conditions that face tens of millions of Americans," Perry said.