Christopher Reeve: 1952-2004

Many sports and entertainment industry stars have been affected by Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). Undoubtedly the most visible of these, Christopher Reeve had the most severe level of injury resulting in the need for a ventilator for breathing since his 1995 injury. Reeve has perhaps the most documented efforts for recovery of any individual with SCI in the last 20 years. He went through many of the same difficulties we all faced when we acquired our spinal cord injuries.

In a split second, “faster than a speeding bullet,” a spinal cord injury can change our lives. The sudden onset of the changes in the body’s ability to control its functions, the fear of dependency on others, or the presumption that we will never be as valued or as capable as we were before the injury cause us to immediately look for a way to make it go away. It also makes us look at who we are, where we have been or where we might have gone. Having explored those answers, we ask the scary question of, Where are we going from here?

Like most people right after a spinal cord injury, for me the search for a cure started immediately. My family and I (at age 14), were told in May of 1963 that the cure was right around the corner. Forty-one years later in my case, and nine years later in Reeve’s case, it is still “right around the corner.” More enlightened professionals, however, are saying a cure MAY be around the corner with the number of efforts being pursued.

Individuals with SCI, scientists and research teams all around the world are making tremendous efforts to crack the complexities of a cure. Hope must be maintained while being balanced with the need for forward life continuance and positive movement. Hopefully the time to a cure is a bit shorter now, although it’s important to keep one’s body in its best condition through activity, exercise and nutrition as the research continues.

While Christopher Reeve waged his battles with health issues, he maintained hope for a cure, optimizing what he could do to stay as healthy as possible while continuing to move forward productively and capably– leading a life of fulfillment and spiritual contentment. For me personally, this type of contentment means that I am taking control of my life and its direction, I have acknowledged the impact of the spinal cord injury and have chosen to move onward to the best of my ability at this time.

The passing of Christopher Reeve points out the complexity of the body system interactions after a severe spinal cord injury, especially for a quadriplegic but for paraplegics also. On Saturday October 9, 2004, he fell into a coma after going into cardiac arrest while at home. Reeve was being treated for a pressure wound that he developed, a common complication for people living with paralysis. In his last week, the wound became severely infected, resulting in a serious systemic infection.

Reeve had the economic ability to have the best care and assistance available. He could afford the latest therapeutic activities, from electrical stimulation cycling three times weekly or more, cardiovascular strengthening, to the latest surgical procedure facilitating finger or hand closure/grip. He had the ability to travel to research sites and participate in trials with support staff and family. Even with independent financial resources however, a small skin breakdown that might seem insignificant at the time can lead to a rapidly-progressing systemic shutdown.

With the 35 years I have worked and associated with persons with SCI, I know that these secondary complications, such as skin breakdowns, bladder/kidney infections, excessive swelling of the lower extremities, can all suddenly get worse. We all have to take the responsibility to prevent these occurrences where we can and have all secondary issues checked. Christopher Reeve’s untimely passing reminds us that we must get off these sores and not push them to infections. We have perhaps been lucky that ours did not progress as rapidly, or cause system-wide shutdown and death.

Reeve was a man who grasped what it meant to acknowledge what his SCI was in his life and move it forward to its maximum. With his family’s efforts, he raised the issue of SCI Cure Research to a high visibility level in recent years. We also cannot overlook the efforts of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), or United Spinal Association (formerly Eastern PVA-New York) or the National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s Research funding efforts dating back to the 50s. Kent Waldrep’s National Paralysis Foundation and The Rick Hanson’s Canadian –Man in Motion Foundation started in the early 70’s with The Miami Project starting in 1985.

Here in Minnesota, the Spinal Cord Society started in 1978 with a sole focus on a cure, to this day utilizing no government funding. In the mid 90’s The Morton Cure Paralysis Fund was established. The majority of their funding in recent years has gone to The Spinal Cord Injury Project at Rutgers University, home of Dr. Wise Young, named America’s Top Spinal Cord Injury Research Scientist by TIME magazine. In the last three years, they have accepted grant proposals from other laboratories for specific projects and have approved three of them. Two of these projects are in Minnesota, at laboratories at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The third is at the research department of Boston Children’s Hospital.

Reeve’s great acting presence and visibility certainly increased awareness of the sudden onset of SCI. His will to overcome a significant injury, far more severe than many, provides a role model that can pointed to for many years to come.

Many individuals have reported that after their spinal cord injury, their lives were enhanced, full of love and warmth and exciting adventures. They also say they felt for a long time the societal pressures to not be different or functionally limited. What many say now is that they are fine with who they are and what they have accomplished during their lives. Maybe when the breakthrough comes, they will make sure it works consistently before they have to get “fixed.”

My way of thinking, as with many of my friends, is that I don’t need to walk at first, but maybe some of the other functions I would like to have will be available in my lifetime. In the meantime we are going to keep moving forward, take on the challenges of living whole and productive lives, and in our own ways we’ll thank Reeve for the fight he waged to make life more complete for others. Our thoughts are with his family and all families that go through catastrophic changes and move forward the best ways they can.

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