Film star Christopher Reeve was best known for playing Superman until he was paralysed from the neck down after a riding accident in 1995. He then became a tireless campaigner for the disabled, raising millions for research.
He survived ten years of near total immobility but died of complications in 2004, aged 52. His wife, Dana, 44, died unexpectedly of cancer in March 2006, leaving their son Will, then 13, an orphan. A new book tells their remarkable story.
At 3pm on May 27, 1995, film star Christopher Reeve was competing on his new horse, Eastern Express, in a three-day event in Culpeper, Virginia. His wife Dana was back at their hotel looking after Will, their three-year-old son.
As Reeve, 42, approached a fence, his horse started to jump but then changed its mind. Reeve ploughed head-first into the ground, then flipped over, snapping his neck. As he lay there, motionless, the judge announced over the loudspeaker: ‘Superman is down!’
But it was no laughing matter; two of Reeve’s upper spinal Vertebrae were shattered. He was airlifted to hospital where Dr John Jane, the hospital’s chief of surgery, explained Reeve’s condition to Dana, then 34.
Put bluntly, her husband was lucky to be alive and needed a complicated operation to reconnect his skull to his spine.
‘At first, Chris wanted to die – no question,’ remembers Dr Jane.
‘He was a smart guy who got up every morning wondering whether he was going to sail his yacht, fly his plane or play tennis. Suddenly, he can’t move, he can’t feel – he didn’t think this new life was worth living.’
Finally, when he and Dana were alone, Reeve confronted the issue. ‘Maybe,’ he said to her, ‘we should let me go.’
But she told him: ‘I want you to know I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what… You’re still you. And I love you.’
Reeve survived the eight-hour operation and then spent six months in a Rehabilitation unit before returning home. But he was a quadriplegic – unable to feel or move below his neck.
The actor who had played a superhero now had to rely on others for everything – to feed, bath and shave him, help him urinate and defecate. These were painful and degrading aspects of his new life.
But as his son Will said at the time: ‘Daddy can’t move. But he can still smile.’
Reeve learned to control a £35,000 wheelchair by blowing into a plastic straw and started a gruelling regime of physiotherapy.
In September 1995, he and Dana appeared on the Barbara Walters chat show and announced that Reeve had not given up hope of walking again. ‘I would like to stand up on my 50th birthday – that’s seven years from now,’ he told her.
Overnight, Reeve was being hailed an inspiration for disabled people everywhere.
On his bedroom wall hung a signed poster of the Nasa astronauts and he often said that spinal cord research needed ‘another effort like the space programme’.
Reeve was visited by pioneer researcher Dr Wise Young, and Henry Steifel, chairman of the American Paralysis Association (APA). What was needed, they agreed, was a recognisable face to lead the fight. What they needed was Superman.
Reeve picked up the gauntlet at the APA’s annual fundraising dinner in November 1995, where he gave the keynote speech, drawing parallels between the Moon landings and spinal cord research. The evening raised £500,000 and Reeve was asked to become chairman.
He went on to set up the Christopher Reeve Foundation and raised more than £25million for research and £5million in grants to patients.
He appealed frequently for research into spinal injuries. At the Oscar ceremony in 1996, he made an emotional speech and actor Mel Gibson said at the time: ‘The attitude he’s got – he’ll walk.’
By 2000, Reeve had regained sensation in 70 per cent of his body and could feel when Dana or his children embraced him.
The couple even confirmed on a chat show that they did have a sex life. Despite near-complete paralysis, Reeve was not impotent. Reeve went on to move the fingers of his left hand, raise his right hand 90 degrees, breathe independently for 90 minutes and wiggle his toes.
Reeve was an outspoken supporter of stem cell research, which involves using cells from human embryos to replace damaged cells in the body.
This controversial treatment is opposed by anti-abortion campaigners as it means killing the embryos – and Reeve’s stance put him in direct conflict with President George W. Bush.
In 2002, Reeve testified before the US Senate on behalf of a Bill allowing research to go forward. It was eventually passed, although Bush insisted that only stem cells that had already been harvested could be used and no further embryos killed.
By then, Reeve’s health was declining. He contracted pneumonia in December 2003 and a series of infections followed. By the spring of 2004 he was, by his own admission, in constant pain.
That October, a Pressure Sore on his lower back became infected. For Reeve this meant stronger antibiotics than the ones he was already taking for a chronic MRSA infection.
Despite this, he insisted on attending his 12-year-old son Will’s ice hockey match, where he cheered his son on throughout. Will’s team won, with Will as man of the match.
That night, father and son ate together and Will later said it had been a great day ‘for father-son bonding’.
But shortly before midnight, his father suffered a heart attack. He never emerged from a coma and died peacefully in the early hours of October 10, 2004.
During his lifetime, Christopher Reeve had raised millions for research grants into spinal injury. But ultimately, his fight benefited others, not himself.
Tragically, just ten months after his death, his wife Dana was diagnosed with lung cancer, despite being a lifelong nonsmoker. She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy but died in March 2006.
As an old friend, chat show host Larry King, said: ‘They left us much too soon. But not before giving us two unforgettable profiles in courage.’
• Extracted by Becky Sheaves from Somewhere In Heaven by Christopher Andersen, published by Ebury Press at £16.99. © Andersen Productions 2008. To order your copy at the special price of £15.30, with free postage and packing, call 0845 6064207.
Controversial research that offers hope to disabled
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are ‘generic’ and found everywhere in the body. A stem cell can make exact copies of itself indefinitely and produce cells for various tissues in the body.
Are there two sorts?
Yes – embryonic stem cells, from fertilised eggs left over from in vitro fertilisation, and adult stem cells, which are not as versatile because they are specific to certain cell types, such as blood and skin.
Why are they important?
Stem cells offer the promise of cell replacement to cure blood and liver diseases, diabetes, Parkinson’s and skin and eye injuries.
Are any therapies available?
Bone marrow transplants transfer donor stem cells to cancer sufferers. Umbilical cord stem cells have cured children with immune problems.
What’s the controversy?
There is little controversy about using bone marrow stem cells or those from umbilical cord blood. However, creation of embryonic stem cells involves extracting cells from a very early-stage embryo.
Why are embryonic stem cells so sought after?
They can change into any of the body’s cells.
What does the law say?
In the UK, stem cell research is regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. In the US, President Bush says killing an embryo for research is ‘a line that should not be crossed’.
Could stem cells have saved Superman?
Christopher Reeve believed stem cell research could lead to ways of generating neuronal cells, which could be used in the repair of spinal cords.
Source: North East England Stem Cell Institute.
By Christopher Andersen