Man and superman
Christopher Reeve—“Superman”—is rarely out of the limelight since a riding accident left him
severely disabled. Certainly his fame—and fortune—have helped him deal with his disability, but his
apparent emphasis on the importance of walking has outraged the disability lobby
On a May morning in 1995, a young man was rushed BMJ, London
to hospital after a near fatal riding accident. His injury Lynn Eaton
Christopher Reeve’s injury freelance journalist
broke the first and second vertebrae in his neck, and editor of patients
leaving him completely paralysed from the neck down. When Christopher Reeve fell from his horse he theme issue
landed directly on his helmet, in a near perpendicular
Since then, he has had to spend his life in a wheelchair, email@example.com
position, breaking two vertebrae in his neck. His spinal
on a ventilator, totally reliant on others. cord was not completely severed, but there was a large
Had the young man been one of the other 400 000 haemorrhage at the point of the injury. This damaged BMJ 2003;326:1287
people so affected in the United States or the 40 000 in the nerve fibres that carry information from the brain
Britain, you would never have heard about it. However, to the muscles of the body.
he was Christopher Reeve, and the cruel irony of this Reeve was originally graded as A on the ASIA scale,
devised by the American Spinal Injury Association,
happening to “Superman,” of all people, thrust him
which gave him little hope of recovery. Until now, it
into the limelight at a time of personal crisis. had been thought that if there were any recovery at all
Reeve was inundated with letters of support and it would be in the first six months.
encouragement after the incident. “It was a tremen- After intensive physical therapy, he is now graded C,
dous boost, particularly in the first couple of months, as which means he has regained sensitivity to touch and
I had to come to grips with what happened to me,” he pin prick and has some muscle movement—including
acknowledges. He admits to feeling depressed and sui- control of the anal sphincter muscle. He has also had
far fewer life threatening medical complications than
cidal initially. But the love of his family helped pull him when he was graded A.
through. His wife, Dana, whom he married just three
For further details see McDonald JW, Becker D,
years earlier, resisted his suggestion that they “let him Sadowsky CL, Jane JA Sr, Conturo TE, Schultz LM.
go” and persuaded him to give it another two years. Late recovery following spinal cord injury. Case report
and review of the literature. J Neurosurg 2002;97(suppl
Finding a sense of purpose
Coming to terms with disability or a long term medical
condition is hard enough for anyone. Doing it in the
media spotlight can’t be easy. Now, eight years on, forward thinking of the UK parliament. “I want to
Reeve has not only come to terms with his new life, but make it clear how grateful I am to the House of Lords
seems to have found a new meaning for it. committee for making such a courageous decision,” he
With a quiet, Clark Kent earnestness, Reeve talks says. But his pleasure is tinged with regret that the
about life in a wheelchair, the importance of taking United States is no longer at the cutting edge of
care of your health, and his campaign work for the science: “I’m afraid we’ve given up a lot of our
Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. In particular, pre-eminence.”
he is keen to expose what he sees as the untenable Strong words from a man who chooses his words
position of the US government on stem cell research. carefully; he is reliant on a ventilator, so each sentence
Bowing to pressure from various religious and is an effort. As he pauses to pick the most appropriate
conservative groups, President Bush decided that no phrase, the machine softly gurgles.
government funding would be available for stem cell Rather than be hijacked by the stem cell lobby, as
research unless it used cell lines already available at some might argue he has been, Reeve has consciously
that time—9 August 2001. Effectively this severely decided to use his celebrity status for a wider benefit
restricts the number of stem cells available in the US than just his own recovery. “I felt it was important to
for vital research that might help find a cure for Reeve advocate for a technology that can cure Parkinson’s and
and others like him. Alzheimer’s, cancers, diabetes, leukaemia—the list goes
In Britain, however, scientists are still able to on. Then you are addressing worldwide concerns that
develop stem cells under licence, although there have will help millions of people. If you go with your hand out
been moves recently within the European parliament for just one condition that affects relatively small
to restrict this. However, Reeve is keen to applaud the numbers of people you are not going to get very far.”
BMJ VOLUME 326 14 JUNE 2003 bmj.com page 1 of 4
He insists he is using his celebrity status taken from excess fertilised embryos that are meant to
responsibly: “What I don’t like are celebrities who be discarded as medical waste, after a couple have suc-
haven’t really taken the time to study an issue, and in cessfully conceived. I cannot comprehend a moral
that way become a liability rather than an asset. objection to rescuing those embryos, literally from the
“I really have no business talking about stem cells garbage, in order to use them for stem cell research. I
unless I understand what stem cells are, the different absolutely cannot understand that.
types of stem cells, and that I am up to speed on the “It really has been devastating to watch the pace of
cutting edge research going on around the world.” progress slow down because of political controversy. I
He sits bolt upright, strapped in his electric wheel- thought that hope for recovery and for the best
chair, a powerful presence in the study of his comfort- outcome for patients would depend on science. I did
able Westchester county home, an hour north of New not anticipate that hope would be so affected by
York. Photographs of him and his family are dotted politics. That came as a big shock, a big shock,” he
around the house, along with an ageing crayon emphatically repeats.
drawing from his youngest son, Will, now almost 11 So has the all American boy lost faith in the Ameri-
years old: “To superman and superwoman . . . from can dream? “My idealism has certainly been knocked
superboy.” by witnessing first hand the influence that politics has
It all looks idyllic, but when we met, New York was over science,” he admits. “It is really outrageous.”
on “orange terror alert” and on the brink of war with
Iraq. Reeve makes no bones about the hypocrisy of the
situation—that the United States has had endless moral
Fitness and dependency
debate over stem cells, yet, at that time, hardly any on Reeve’s eye is watering. He asks if I would mind finding
the imminent war. “A number of religions think that a tissue and wiping it for him. His throat gets dry
destroying an embryo, even one that is already during the two hour conversation, and, between
destined to be thrown away as medical waste, is questions and answers, I hold a glass of water to his
immoral. They have weighed in on the issue, talking mouth for him to sip. These small tasks bring home the
about the sanctity of life. If you are talking about the fact that, for all his advantages, he still has to rely on
sanctity of life, why should there be more debate over others for every tiny thing.
an embryo than there is over sending an 18 year old Reeve was always a keen sportsman, and it is typical
kid to face armed combat in Baghdad? In my mind,” he of his driven personality that he sticks to a gruelling
pauses, carefully, “there is a disconnect there.” exercise regimen. “What if you don’t feel like it?” I ask,
Reeve has always been a political animal, lobbying thinking how many times I intend to go to the gym but
on public funding of the arts, for example. But he never make it.
underestimated what he got himself into on stem cells: “You do it anyway,” he swiftly replies.
“I was stunned to find out how controversial it was, He talks with obvious enthusiasm of his exercise
particularly in the States. Embryonic stem cells are programme. This includes using an electric stimulator
on his leg muscles, which triggers them to pedal on a
stationary bike, something he does for 45 minutes,
three days a week. He goes to a pool every other week,
where he gets a chance to practise taking steps.
In an attempt to wean himself off the ventilator, he
has a rigorous programme of diaphragm conditioning,
trying to work the intercostal muscles between his ribs
for 15 minutes at a time off the ventilator. He has also
recently had an electronic device inserted into the skin
near these muscles to trigger the nearby phrenic
nerves and cause a contraction. This forces air into the
lungs and could eventually help him breathe without
having to rely on the ventilator.
Most people with his injury would suffer endless
urinary tract infections, or ulcers on pressure points.
Reeve almost lost a leg in 1997 when an ulcer became
badly infected. “But now I’m actually in very good
health,” he says, with a slightly ironic smile. “At the very
least, all the training and exercise and nutrition has
kept me out of hospital pretty much over the last four
and half years, whereas in the early stages I was
frequently hospitalised with pneumonia, collapsed
lungs, broken bones. You know, that’s no way to live.”
But there have been other effects of his so called
activity based recovery programme, which he started in
1999. No one with his level of injury had ever received
such intensive treatment before, but Reeve was
determined not to let his muscles waste away. He
astounded scientists by managing to raise a finger on
his left hand in September 2000, and has since
managed to move muscles in his upper arms and, to a
page 2 of 4 BMJ VOLUME 326 14 JUNE 2003 bmj.com
Stem cell research
What exactly is Christopher Reeve arguing for?
Scientists believe they can use stem cells to develop healthy new tissue, which could then be used to replaced damaged
tissues in the body. Reeve wants scientists to be able to forge ahead with this research.
What is a stem cell?
Stem cells are unspecialised cells that are able to replicate and can be influenced by their environment to take on
specialised properties. So, for example, a blood stem cell (which is usually present in the bone marrow) cannot carry
oxygen to tissues of the body, but it can give rise to the specialised red blood cells capable of doing the job.
There are two types of stem cells of interest to general medical science—adult stem cells (such as blood stem cells)
and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are usually only able to generate their tissue of origin, whereas embryonic
stem cells can, in theory, be used to generate any tissue of the body.
How can this help cure diseases?
Stem cells could be used to introduce healthy, dopamine producing neurones in the brain of a patient with
Parkinson’s disease. Or they could be used to transplant insulin-producing pancreatic cells into patients with
diabetes. If the cells come from the patient’s own body, it reduces the risk of rejection.
They could, in theory, be used to replace the damaged tissue in patients with spinal cord injury—thus restoring the
signals from the brain to parts of the body which are paralysed. But this is only one of many areas of research into
tackling such injury.
So what’s the problem?
Using a patient’s own stem cells—adult stem cells—is not easy as adult stem cells can be hard to find. In the blood, for
example, there is only one stem cell for every 10 million ordinary ones.
However, scientists have discovered that cells taken from a newly fertilised human embryo—one just five days
old—contain a high number of stem cells. These “embryonic” stem cells can be gathered from the discarded embryos
collected from in vitro fertilisation clinics. Once a couple has successfully conceived, any extra eggs that have been
fertilised in a test tube, and are being stored by the laboratory as a back up, are discarded. But scientists could use
them to develop numerous stem cell lines, thereby creating a bank of tissue types that would be more likely to match
But some people feel that it is wrong to use these embryos, arguing that life begins at the point of fertilisation and
that fertilised eggs should not be used in this way.
Is this the same as cloning?
No. Cloning is a different method of cultivating stem cells, through cell nuclear replacement, a process that uses an
unfertilised egg. Scientists replace the original nucleus of the egg with the nucleus of an adult cell. The adult nucleus
then becomes reprogrammed into an embryonic state, and the embryo begins development. It should be possible to
derive stem cells from this early embryo. The newly created cells could be used to create tissue for different parts of
Therapeutic cloning (that is, for treatments) is controversial because it could, potentially, be used for reproductive
cloning (in the same way that scientists produced Dolly the sheep).
Isn’t treatment still a long way off?
Scientists have yet to carry out human trials to prove that tissue and cells created from embryonic stem cells can be
used successfully to treat diseases. They have to know the cells they use are safe and reliable: the cells might be
rejected or might increase the risk of cancer, for example. Experiments have been done on mice, however.
What is stopping the scientists?
The US government has bowed to pressure from various religious and conservative groups and restricted the number
of stem cells available for research, which scientists argue will hamper progress. President Bush decided the
government would fund some stem cell research in the United States—but only if it was carried out on one of the 60
stem cell lines worldwide that were derived before 9 August 2001, when he made his ruling.
In 2001 a House of Lords select committee decided that therapeutic cloning was acceptable, but reproductive
cloning was not. Their decision was challenged by the pro-life lobby, and the case went to the Court of Appeal, but the
Subsequently, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Agency has licensed researchers in Edinburgh and London
to develop stem cell lines from spare human embryos left over after fertility treatment. Any new stem cells that they
create will be deposited in a national stem cell bank, set up by the Medical Research Council.
But a threat now hangs over that, as the European parliament is considering calls from European MPs to restrict
stem cell research throughout Europe.
lesser extent, in his legs. These movements may seem “But the really remarkable discovery—and the
small but, by spinal injury standards, are pretty study was published in the Proceedings of the National
amazing, shifting him two grades up the official scale Academy of Sciences—was that the command to move my
for measuring such movement. They’ve even made the finger, move my tongue, and to feel sensation at the
scientific journals. bottom of my left foot, all came from the correct part of
“It can easily be dismissed as a study of one,” Reeve the motor cortex and pretty much matched an
jokes, “but as far as I am aware there have been no uninjured control subject.
professional challenges to the validity of the data. The “It means that there is a big deficit right now in
most likely explanation is that exercise has reawakened terms of my quality of life, but very positive hope for
dormant pathways. Perhaps there is some small the future—because there is not much that needs to be
amount of regeneration caused by the exercise. repaired.”
BMJ VOLUME 326 14 JUNE 2003 bmj.com page 3 of 4
Foundation, has had a huge benefit on his mental
Patients in control: the way to go health: “I would say that the opportunity that I have to
speak out—and literally be heard around the
Christopher Reeve never used to visit a doctor; now he relies on doctors
world—has had a direct effect on my health. There is a
and carers continually for his survival and wellbeing. So what makes a good
doctor? And a good patient? reason to get up every morning, beyond being here for
“I think that today we are in a new era of medicine, one that is very my family. I have work to do every day that may affect
different from the old. The old way, it used to be that the doctors were the the outcomes for other patients.”
experts, and the patients knew nothing and were expected to rely on the Since his injury, Reeve, a native New Yorker and
doctors’ expertise—literally, ‘the doctor knows best.’ typical WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), has
“It’s giving the patient control and developing a partnership with the
recently found a corner of Christian faith he feels com-
patient. That is clearly the way to go. Doctors and patients really need to
collaborate on reversing illness and disability or achieving the best possible fortable with—the Unitarian Church.
outcome. Does it help him deal with his disability at all, I
“A good doctor goes the extra mile for his patients, in spite of the naively ask?
limitations of the healthcare system. A good doctor will really take the time There is a long pause: “I’ve never really connected
to develop a personal relationship with a patient and think creatively to the two, actually.”
come up with the best possible treatment, rather than just following the
Backpeddling fast, I ask if he thinks a belief system
protocols set by insurance companies or the administration of the hospital.
They need to be independent thinkers who are full of compassion. can have a positive effect on a person’s health.
“A good patient should learn everything he can about his illness or “Absolutely, absolutely,” he responds without
disability and be willing to try reasonable recommendations and meet hesitation. “As long as it is genuine, that it comes from
challenges that are posed by doctors or patients. A good patient needs to within. Often when you are seriously ill or injured,
maintain self discipline, so that he can harness his own willpower and the people come to you who want to help. I think that, as a
ability of the mind to affect the body to help the doctors who are trying to
use to medicine to affect a cure.”
patient, you have to still be true to yourself and not let
Reeve is a great believer in being proactive over personal health, rather others, even though they might be well meaning,
than just leaving it to the doctor to sort out when things go wrong. He impose their own beliefs or their own ways of living on
likens it to looking after your car properly, rather than just taking it to the you.
garage when something goes wrong: “Staying in control, making decisions about your
“If you were to read a couple of books about cars you might be able to life is really important when you are disabled. Just
change the oil, the spark plugs, adjust the brakes, and do other things so
you wouldn’t have to go to the garage.
because your body may be broken, or not functioning,
“I urge people not to take their health for granted. To really pay attention doesn’t mean that your heart and your mind aren’t
to diet and exercise, particularly as people get older. To be very proactive functioning. In fact, you have an opportunity to
about watching for early signs of conditions that might develop. That means develop your heart and your mind in a way you might
being checked for the possible development of tumours or cancer. not have discovered otherwise.”
“When I see someone who clearly is not paying attention to their own Reeve has certainly had plenty of time to do that.
health I try to intervene, particularly in my own family. One of my brothers
has diabetes and went through a period a few years ago when he had So what good, if any, has come from his tragedy? It’s
emotional issues about it. He tried to avoid sticking to the strict regimen of nearing the end of the interview, and he’s tired, but it’s
monitoring his insulin levels and was eating inappropriately. I intervened clearly something he has thought a great deal about
with him, and got him back on track.” and wants to impart: “If you were to stop the average
person on the street and say ‘If you had to pick one
goal in life, what would it be?’ some people would say, ‘I
Reeve also believes strongly in the power of the would like to be rich’ or ‘to be famous.’ But I bet that the
mind over the body. In 1997 he developed a small ulcer majority would say, ‘I would like to make a difference.’
on his left ankle, which became infected. Doctors “Quite unexpectedly I have been put in the
warned that he might have to have an amputation. He position of . . .” he pauses, then corrects himself, “given
was given ceftazidime, a powerful antibiotic, but he also the opportunity to make a significant difference, to
vowed mentally he was going to fight this infection, become a spokesman for people who will never be
which he is convinced helped: “I was simply not, not heard. I hope it doesn’t sound egotistical, but,” there is
going to let them take my leg, and I definitely think that a long pause as he finds the words, “that’s the good that
had an effect on the outcome.” can come out of this.”
He also thinks that his own work, as a patient advo-
cate and for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Competing interests: None declared.
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