Reeve's "Courageous Steps"
The news came
like a shock wave, electrifying the media, the scientific
community, the medical profession and all who heard the
news. Christopher Reeve has recovered some movement in
his body, which has remained still for seven long years.
He is the first person to have suffered the worst possible
spinal cord injury (C-2 Quadriplegic) and have no recovery in
the first two years, to have improvement years later. This
unprecedented development is rocking the field of neuroscience
and igniting sparks of hope for all who suffer from
But for those who know him, like his wife Dana, Chris' ability
to defy the doctors' prognosis is no real surprise. It's
just the nature of the man to reach for the 'adventure' ahead,
to forge new paths, undaunted by negative forces.
From the time we worked on Somewhere In Time, his
remarkable ‘positivity’ --a word I like to use in
describing Chris for people who ask me what he's like--his
enthusiasm, his fresh optimism, his zesty attitude toward
whatever it is he is involved in--was always apparent.
He literally exuded positive energy. It is an absolute
that if you meet this man, you will love this man. How
can you help it? He doesn't spend his energy on negative
thoughts, he doesn't waist time complaining...he moves forward
and activates change. A few times in his presence, I
found myself doing double-takes, wondering, “are you for
real?” Perhaps that is the mysterious, nebulous
quality of "magnetism" that some have written
about....if so, there is no doubt Chris has it, in
I remember an early interview I read, though I don't remember
where, in which he was saying that he had found he could be
happy both rich and poor, be content eating cereal on crates
as furniture, feel as good as when he was enjoying a big
paycheck and living in a Hollywood home...that sort of
flexibility and resilience was impressive too. Chris
chose acting roles--including that of Richard Collier--not for
money, having been offered much higher-paying parts, but for
the challenge they afforded him. Even at the peak of his
movie career, he always went back to the theatre, to further
hone his skills.
When he was injured, I fell into a serious depression,
thinking how tragic a blow he suffered. Yet, I knew in
my heart, he would somehow forge a new, albeit different life
and make it a good one. He would need to draw on all
those marvelous qualities he possessed, and when those weren't
enough, he drew strength from his wife Dana, a person of equal
depth, genuineness and sparkle. My own depression over
Chris' devastating injury began to lift when I saw him
interviewed by Barbara Walters, late in 1995, when it was
apparent his attitude, coping skills, and his resilience were
serving him well, even through the disappointing
setbacks. How delightful it is to see Chris and Dana
together, obvious deeply in love, with that reverential
respect that mates should have for each other...the kind of
bond that only comes through adversity.
It seems as though Chris is more “famous'” now in his
current condition than he was as an active man in the peak of
health, taking on a variety of roles as a Hollywood
star. Nevertheless, Chris was always pushing the
envelope somewhere. In 1997 (1st Q INSITE issue) I wrote
an article about him called, “The Hero You Didn't Expect”,
in which were revealed his political activism, and charitable
work. Chris was engaging in altruistic endeavors long
before those aspects of his character were made widely public.
Whether skiing, sailing, flying or anything else, Chris throws
himself wholeheartedly into his activities. This goes a
long way in explaining his seemingly inexhaustible energy, and
determination. He is the type who competes only with
himself, and will work to go beyond whatever anyone could
expect from him.
Chris helped found the Creative Coalition, a forum in which
actors “in the spotlight” could become informed, to
utilize their celebrity to forward worthwhile
causes. He was involved in many local and
far-reaching issues--from pure water for New York City, to
freedom of speech in the arts. He was involved in
Special Olympics long before he himself became wheelchair
And he even was willing to put his own life on the line on
behalf of others in trouble. In the mid-eighties, Chris
learned of a critical situation in Chile, during the
militarist regime of dictator Pinochet. A group of
seventy actors and directors, who were considered dissidents,
were given an ultimatum to leave the country within days or be
executed. Chris didn't wait for others to join him. He
traveled to Chile single-handedly, carrying letters of support
from fellow actors in the various Unions in the States,
and a petition from Amnesty International, to publicly
denounce the ultimatum, hoping his celebrity would turn the
tide of intense pressure. He couldn't speak their
language, but that didn't dissuade him. Amidst machine
gun-toting soldiers, riots, and beatings, he made his
statement in support of the actors. It worked. The death
warrants against them were lifted.
It is not widely known, but Chris once flew solo across the
Atlantic--becoming lost temporarily, dangerously low on fuel,
but he accomplished that feat, one few pilots would attempt.
This demonstrates that he’s always set high-level
goals. Being goal oriented, with each goal met, his
inner strength and knowledge of his capabilities empower him
to stretch ever forward.
And now, even though he's paralyzed, he has still directed his
first movie (In the Gloaming), starred in a wonderful
remake (Rear Window), written two books, given
countless inspirational speeches, and lobbied Congress on
increasing insurance caps for catastrophic illness and the
issue of stem cell research.
He spearheaded the networking of once-isolated scientists in
related research through his Christopher Reeve Paralysis
Foundation, so they could instantly share their
findings. This jump-started progress in the field of
spinal cord research, moving it from a snail's
pace--because it was considered hopeless--to a blossoming and
promising field of endeavor, paving the way for a real
cure. Now there is light at the end of the tunnel.
And this future cure, when it will be found, will not only
help those who are paralyzed, it will also improve life for
those with diabetes, multiple sclerosis, stroke,
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's and other diseases of the nervous
This year, he and his wife cut the ribbon on another pet
project, The Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource
Center, a facility devoted to improving the daily life of
those stricken with paralyzing conditions. This center,
in New Jersey, helps families learn about all the technology,
equipment and devices available to help them live better
lives. No facility like it existed previously.
Chris has suffered all the ravages his stillness inevitably
brought with it. He's had pneumonia, infections, skin
breakdown, bowel and bladder problems, blood clots and broken
bones. He was back in the hospital 13 times in the first
two years after his accident. Through it all, he was
determined to maintain his body through exercise, so that if
someday a cure would be found, he would be in good enough
condition to receive it. This goal, despite setbacks,
devoted him to an intense exercise program 3 days a week, in
which his body was strapped to several devices which would
move his limbs for him.
For five entire years, not a single bit of improvement was
seen--with the notable exceptions of improved circulation,
return of muscle mass and reversing the effects of
osteoporosis, staving off frequent hospital stays. Even
though no movement was even thought possible, Chris continued.
His incredible focus on his long term goal, to at least be in
good enough condition to receive a cure if ever one was found,
kept him going against the most daunting odds. It is
this ability he has to focus on a goal with unswerving
concentration that is a marvel of Christopher Reeve's
character. Most of the population cannot even stay with
a simple goal of losing a few pounds, let alone the years of
time he may have to wait until he can try a cure that hasn't
yet been developed.
His ventilator does the job of breathing for him, but Chris
has not been content to be reliant on it. This is partly
because of the fear of “pop-offs” which occasionally
occur, when the hose comes loose from his body, triggering an
alarm for someone to come running. This was graphically
illustrated in Rear Window, and is a danger for all vent
dependent patients. For us who breathe normally, it is
virtually effortless to take in air, because our diaphragm,
the muscle below and in between our lungs, moves downward to
cause a gentle vacuum action, helping us to draw air to fill
and inflate our lungs, then pushes upward to release the
exhalation. Chris has to force air into his lungs, and
likens the effort involved to blowing up a balloon.
Chris has taught himself to be able to breathe for over an
hour, previously “by gulping air, like a fish out of
water.” He cannot speak while he is breathing on his
own, and after an hour to an hour and a half, he would be
completely exhausted from the effort, which he has described
as “climbing Mt. Everest with a pack on your back.”
Now, he has gained some control of his diaphragm, and can sit
calmly and breathe for the same amount of time, listening to
classical music. Still, being that breathing is an
activity requiring concentrated effort, he cannot be weaned
off the ventilator, for obvious reasons, such as sleep
After his injury, he was only able to shrug his right
shoulder, and had sensation to touch on only 12% of his body.
His ability to now move the fingers on his left hand, move his
right wrist and right elbow 90 degrees, move all his arms and
legs substantially in a pool (where gravity and weight are not
factors) even with 5-lb. weights strapped to each ankle, and
have sensation in 67% of his body, is nothing short of
miraculous, astounding his attending doctors and causing a
giant stir in the field of neuroscience.
Perhaps most importantly, Chris can now feel the hugs of Dana
and 10 year old son, Will.
Chris had become immediately intrigued by a theory postulated
by Dr. John McDonald at a neuroscience convention, that
electrical stimulation in conjunction with repetitive
movements could re-awaken nerve function, and possibly even
produce new nerve paths to form. Chris approached
McDonald, asking him to oversee an exercise program for him to
test the theory. But it wasn't until many months of
faithfully following the regimen that a flicker of real,
tangible progress was seen.
Dana relates how she first noticed Chris' left index finger
move during conversation in November of 2000 (the month after
the New York Premiere of SIT). She said it moved in
timing with a natural gesture one might make to punctuate a
point. She asked Chris if he was doing it on purpose,
and he said no. She suggested he try it. He
concentrated and commanded the finger to move, and it did.
They both wondered, “Where is this coming from?”
In typical Chris fashion, he did not mention this until he saw
McDonald backstage just before a speech he was to give, and
simply said, “I think I have something you might be
interested to see”, at which point he moved the finger.
Chris describes the doctor's reaction, “You'd think I'd
walked on water!”
Chris explains that there are nerve fibers in his spinal cord
that have been dormant but alive, and his diligent exercise,
which includes pulsing electrical muscle stimulation which
actually makes his own muscles work (not just a machine taking
his muscles for a ride), has re-awakened neural paths--or
perhaps even coaxed new paths to form. Only a
post-mortem study would prove conclusively what is actually
happening in Chris' spinal column, so it remains a mystery to
sort out with further testing and exercise to see what can yet
be accomplished. It has been proven through an MRI that
the part of the brain that would direct the movement is
stimulated at the moment of finger motion, indicating that the
path is being activated. Since this shocking new
development, his doctor ramped up his exercise program to new
levels, and more progress has been made. The future for
Chris and those like him, is shining brighter.
On September 18th, (moved up a week earlier than previously
announced) an hourlong documentary, “Christopher Reeve,
Courageous Steps” aired on ABC. The program
provided a very intimate look at his private life, directed by
his eldest son, Matthew, who recently graduated from Brown
University. Matthew had proposed to his father to
address the goal he'd set for himself back in 1995, when he
vowed he would walk by his 50th birthday (September 25, 2002).
Chris agreed to allow Matthew to follow his daily struggles,
knowing that in his son's hands the truth would be told, no
more, no less. Last year, Matthew began filming and
chronicled his father's progress. We got to see that
Chris did indeed meet his goal--in a pool, he walked a few
eye-popping steps, though he has said with a wry grin, he was
being held up by eleven people!
the touching glimpses into the Reeves’ daily life, the
program gave much food for thought. As Dana says,
“There is no sense of pity or sadness in this house.”
A few times Chris was filmed looking directly into the camera,
talking to the viewer with stunning one-on-one candor.
During the last of these brief segments, he said, “Just try
sitting still for one hour, and see what it is like.”
He claims he has never once had a dream in which he is
paralyzed; in all his dreams he is moving, enjoying his
favorite activities. He now believes, based on recent
studies, that since that is the case, he is actually healing
while he is asleep, as the brain activates neural paths during
dream states. The program was beautifully done, and two
more follow-up installments are planned for the future.
There is not a bit of vanity in him. He never had a clue
as to how handsome he is. In “Courageous Steps” he
was shown without any hair. Chris has, since his
adolescence, suffered on and off with alopecia, a skin
condition which dermatologists don't fully understand, one
which suddenly causes sections of hair to fall out. In
the program he said that he was taking a drug to keep his hair
from falling out, but instead, it made his hair fall out--all
of it, including his eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair, but he
didn't stop the camera from rolling. Thankfully, the
hair is growing back in once again.
In time with the release of his book, “Nothing is
Impossible”, Chris has been making appearances all over in a
carefully coordinated media blitz. He has recently done
interviews with countless magazines, including Time, People,
and newspapers too numerous to mention. He has appeared
on 20/20 with Barbara Walters, Larry King Live, Good Morning
America, Today, and many other prime time programs, often with
Dana at his side, amiably telling how they have coped and
So it seems that medical journals, which deemed impossible the
chances of a paralyzed patient regaining movement years past
an injury, may have to be re-written. The news of Chris'
improvement has busted wide open the possibilities.
Chris contends that science must still come up with a cure,
but now the quest for cure is not just a pipedream.
The Reeves contend insurance companies should provide ongoing
therapies and equipment for those who become paralyzed.
Since those who suffer such injuries are usually young, in
their most active years, they live long lives dependent on
others for care, and return to hospitals often. In the
long run, making therapy available may make it possible for
patients to return to active, productive life, some even
leaving their wheelchairs behind. This saves the
insurance industry money in the long haul. Chris also
has urged Congress to make insurance companies raise the cap
on catastrophic illness coverage to $10 million. Chris'
care costs $400,000 per year. He has three insurance
policies, all of which will reach their maximum by 2005.
“We'll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Chris
replies, when asked what he will do when his insurance runs
Chris lobbies vigorously for stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cells are clumps of young cells no bigger than
a pencil dot. They are usually taken out of fertilized
eggs created at clinics for in-vitro fertilization. A
large number of these cells are discarded because they are not
needed by the couples who produced them. Embryonic stem
cells can develop into other kinds of cells, such as muscle
cells and nerve cells, depending upon where they are
introduced. People who oppose embryonic stem cell
research believe that the fertilized eggs are human beings and
that it is immoral to destroy them by extracting stem cells
from them. Many people who are opposed to embryonic stem
cell research say that adult stem cells--which are harvested
from bone marrow, umbilical chords, and inside the olfactory
section of the brain, where stem cells are constantly produced
and most recently even possibly from the nasal cavity, where
harvesting is easiest--can do the same job. Some
There's also promise in therapeutic cloning--removing an
unfertilized egg's nucleus and inserting the patient's own DNA
into it. The idea is to make tissue that will not be
rejected by the patient's immune system. A lot of people
confuse therapeutic cloning with reproductive cloning--the
creation of babies. Chris opposes this, most people do.
While stem cell research using embryonic stem cells is a
controversial, political hotbed at present, just this past
month, California okayed funding for stem cell research,
paving the way for other states to follow. Chris reports
that other countries are moving ahead with research.
Suddenly, the road to a cure seems inevitable, and there are
many labs and groups of scientists jumping on the bandwagon,
where few had dared to go previously.
All this, because of Chris' belief that “Nothing is
Impossible”. He has become an icon of inspiration to
so many...those now laboring to find a cure, those in similar
condition who now hope to see a day when they might overcome
their paralysis...and those of us who face day to day trials
of varying proportions, allowing us to keep it all in
perspective and face our challenges with renewed strength and
One thing is for certain, if a cure is found, everyone will
have Christopher Reeve to thank for it.
And in the meantime, we all can learn a powerful lesson from
someone who believes that the impossible is possible, and has
proven it to be so.
published in Third Quarter 2002 issue of INSITE -
Sincere thanks to Mary Ellen Kelly, Eveline Marcello,
Ed Stout, Kenneth Bi, and others who sent video clips and made
me aware of printed articles/materials for this feature
article. I truly appreciate members' help in providing
Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation website at www.christopherreeve.org
and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center
website at www.paralysis.org.