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Christopher Reeve

The most famous case of paralysis in recent history is that of Christopher Reeve. "Superman" to movie fans, loving husband to equally devoted wife Dana, dedicated father to his children from two marriages, friend to ex-wife Gae, stage actor and athletic all-around sportsman, he included riding in his long list of skills.

Then came Memorial Day, 1995. Indeed it was to be a day he could never forget.

That May 27, he hopped out of bed prepared to ride his light chestnut Thoroughbred gelding Buck in a cross-country race, a last-minute event some friends had talked him into. Reeve had walked the course twice the day before and headed out again that morning, studying the jumps, planning every move, imagining where he needed to pick up the pace, where to back off, when to turn his head because of a sharp turn.

He was prepared, and Buck was in top shape. Excited, this was what Buck was bred for and they were in fourth place after the mandatory dressage, in good position to win the event.

Jump sixteen was a water jump and Reeve's only concern. The first six jumps were easy warm-up ones, with three being a zigzag -- three feet three inches high in the form of a W.

The race started and Buck was in fine form, easily clearing the early jumps. Halfway through the rails of jump three Buck simply stopped.

Reeve didn't. His body continued over Buck's head, hands entangled in the reins, taking the bit and bridle with him and having no arm free to break his fall. All six foot four inches and 215 pounds of "Superman" drove his head into the railing. While the helmet prevented brain damage, his neck hyperextended in what's called a "hangman's break". This is the break of the neck that kills people who are hung, the snap that instantly paralyzes them and cuts off their breathing.

The first vertebra was shattered and the second broken. Reeve was immediately paralyzed and unable to breathe on his own. This break stops breathing and death follows quickly.

The ambulance and paramedics roared onto the field and administered oxygen before the critical fourth minute when brain damage would have begun but the paramedics held little hope. Reeve was taken by helicopter to the closest facility, tiny Culpepper hospital, where the second miracle occurred. They had methylpredisolone, "MP."

In a fracture of the spinal cord, not only does the victim suffer the initial damage, but inflammation sets in immediately. MP, a synthetic steroid, must be given within the first eight hours after the trauma. It can reduce that inflammation up to 20%. MP is effective when given over a 48-hour period results in improved function in patients with spinal cord injury if treatment begins within three to eight hours following injury. Otherwise the central nervous system begins to fall apart as Reeve describes in his book, Still Me "like a row of dominos" eating up the healthy tissue below the injury like acid.

This 20% can mean the difference between a patient ever breathing on their own or being hooked to a ventilator for life.

In Reeve's case, the inflammation extended down to the seventh vertebra. Without the MP, it could have extended much further and forever eliminated any possibility of regaining the movement he has.

His head was literally detached from his body in the accident and it was a miracle he lived. Quick-thinking and the actions of everyone who dealt with him from the moment the paramedics arrived at the scene until he went into surgery saved his life.

Despair set in. What good was he to anyone? He couldn't be a husband to his wife or a father to his children. He couldn't work. He would be hooked up to machines the rest of his life.

He contemplated suicide, having the doctors pull the plug. Even his mother encouraged this, ranting that "Tomorrow we'll do it." Her husband stood strong against her.

A fascinating new work of fiction approaches this dilemma on the part of a family when their son is paralyzed at the same level as Reeve: Rescuing Jeffrey.

Reeve said to Dana, "Maybe we should let me go."

She replied that she supported whatever decision he made but said, "You're still you. And I love you."

Those words made the decision for him, to live no matter what it took. Then he knew Dana would be with him forever and he couldn't leave that. His just-turned-three-year-old son, Will, made it even easier. Dana was matter-of-fact with him that Daddy couldn't move any more. The little boy was afraid of all the equipment at first, but he adjusted and became the darling of the hospital staff and finally cut through the crap and said about his daddy, "But he can still smile."

In his hospital room, the hours between 2:00 and 7:00 A.M. were the worst. These were the hours he despaired of his life, beat himself up for his stupidity for being in this condition, played the jump over and over again, but he simply had no memory from the time a friend wished him good luck until he woke up in the hospital. Some people said a rabbit ran in front of Buck; others said it was a shadow. It didn't matter; the damage was done but those lonely hours were the worst for him. Always strong, independent, and adventurous, he felt trapped inside a body that no longer worked and he felt embarrassed to be there, convinced it was his fault and there should have been something he could have done to prevent it. Gradually he found a spiritual peace that helped him cope.

It came down to that simple statement from Dana that he held on to.

As the time for the surgery to reattach his head to his body neared, a different fear set in: that the surgery wouldn't succeed. The surgeons had to literally wire his head back onto his body, using titanium pins and coming again and again within a sixteenth of an inch of the brain stem and permanent brain damage if not death.

The surgery was an unquantified success though. So far no C1-C2 has progressed past C4 recovery which would mean control of his biceps and the ability to use his hands again. Much spinal cord injury research stands between this point and that, not only for Reeve but for everyone who has suffered this injury.

Months and then years of rehabilitation followed. Tiny though it is, he has seen improvement. He can breathe off the ventilator for limited amounts of time. He has seen movement in his fingers. These are tiny miracles for people who are paralyzed.

Despite his fame, Reeve is the first to say he is just like everyone else. He just happened to be in the unique position to bring his light to shine on the condition of everyone who is suffering from paralysis and perhaps move the research forward faster than would otherwise have happened.

Only Because He's Famous

Two camps of thought developed following Reeve's accident. One was glad of the publicity this brought to the paralyzed community. The other complained that he received special treatment because he was rich and famous. While it is true that his wealth allowed him access to treatment others could never afford, that wealth dried up quickly.

Reeve had to go back to work -- producing the movie "In The Gloaming," involving himself in other projects, lobbying around the country for more federal money for spinal cord research. Spinal cord injury research has ironically benefited from his terrible accident.

The actor admits in his book to waking from dreams of riding and sailing and being his own self and cries every morning as his body lies like a lump waiting for its caretakers. He, like so many other paralyzed people, has shown incredible strength of mind now that he has no control over the strength in his body.

We do not mean to say, nor does Reeve, that the strength he shows is greater or lesser than that of other paralyzed people throughout the world; he simply has the connections and the name to make something happen for every one of them. He does his best to retain the humility that he is just one of the tens of millions who suffer from paralysis.

The accident brought light on paralysis that had never been shone before. Joan Irvine, wealthy California socialite and fellow horse devotee, joined forces with Reeve to establish The Reeve-Irvine Research Center to study injuries to and diseases of the spinal cord. These diseases and injuries had resulted in paralysis or other loss of neurological function, and their goal is finding a cure.

The Center is part of the College of Medicine of the University of California, Irvine. Led by Dr. Oswald Steward, the activities at the center promote coordination of the work of scientists around the world seeking the cure for paralysis and diseases involving neurological function.

Reeve further created his own foundation Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

Progress in this research moves on very slowly, but it moves. Stem cell research in one hopeful area. Hopefully within our lifetimes we will see paralyzed people using their arms and legs again. There is always room for more miracles in the world.