New front in the war against mortality

March 24, 1998|By Tony Snow

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday night, helpers wheeled Christopher Reeve up a long ramp in a hotel meeting room and then turned him deliberately and dramatically toward a throng of philanthropists. He squinted through the low-slung chandeliers, seemingly impassive, while the crowd rose to shower him with sustained applause.

Mr. Reeve, once a dashing star, now is a dashing head. This may sound horrible, but it's true. Nothing below the neck moves of its own accord. Attendants must strap his body to a tall, stiff chair. His lungs operate only at the beckoning of a machine.

An activist

His disability is an engrossing thing, and adults stare at it the way a child looks at a one-armed man: curious, unblinking. Here is a guy crackling with vitality, an activist who erupts with passions and ideas, a performer who can summon laughter even NTC as he wheezes out words, a director eager to take on ambitious cinematic projects. He's all this and more -- and he cannot so much as scratch his nose.

In modern America, we tend to exalt such folks as victims and talk about their "courage." They become the objects of our suffocating pity. But Mr. Reeve seems uninterested in becoming someone's plaything. He chooses defiance.

"I represent the American Paralysis Association," he begins. "For the record, we're against paralysis." The audience titters. "Unlike, say, the NRA."

Mr. Reeve was there to help the Parkinson's Action Network, which raises money to combat Parkinson's disease. Journalist Morton Kondracke, one of Washington's gentle and decent souls, organized the confab. Mr. Kondracke got involved because he is helping his wife, Millie, battle the affliction.

Parkinson's gradually turns one's body into a tomb. I watched it do its work of erosion on my best friend's father, and the contest lasted a quarter-century.

Mr. Reeve is getting impatient with talk of fate and inexorability. "In the next century," he predicts, "we will explore the frontiers of inner space." He argues that researchers have scratched and clawed their way to the verge of conquering diseases and injuries that not long ago seemed hopelessly catastrophic. He describes progress as if he were talking about ordering a burger carryout: All we need to do, he says, is "pay for a cure."

The actor mentions an experiment in which technicians severed the spinal cords of rats and then treated the rodents with compounds that removed genetic blocks to spinal regeneration. He reports that on a scale of zero to 14, with zero representing complete paralysis and 14 complete functionality, the maimed animals enjoyed Lazarus-like recoveries to a 12.5 level. "Never thought I'd want to change places with a rat," he mutters.

Then, the kicker: He, Mr. Kondracke and others have banded together in hopes of persuading Congress to mount a man-to-the-moon-style effort to combat a long list of diseases and injuries and, through the liberal application of cash, produce "the cure to which we are entitled."

Turning to government

This seems a stunning thing. Yet, there's something surprisingly meek in Mr. Reeve's grand finale. When you think about it, he is reduced to banging a tin cup boldly. He and his colleagues have finessed two key questions: Is government the only vehicle for salvation? What about hedging one's bet and cozying up with the world of commerce?

After all, government doesn't do customer service very well. It gives orders. Medical businesses, in contrast, make their money by producing cures for cash, along the lines Mr. Reeve suggested.

That being the case, the self-described "disability community" might want to open a new front in the war against mortality: Make common cause with research firms or mutual funds that can direct substantial sums of money toward companies doing promising work.

That way, activists not only could reward businesses that do the right thing, but they also could build equity that might produce even greater future returns.

One cannot look at Mr. Reeve or Millie Kondracke without hoping that researchers produce the miracles they seek.

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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