Super man

October 12, 2004

IT'S SAID that Christopher Reeve, then big and strapping, performed his own stunts in his Superman movies. You know, the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet stuff. But his greatest achievement - the one likely to have the most enduring impact - came more than five years after he broke his neck in a riding accident. Rather than leaping a tall building in a single bound, that historic step only involved being able to tell the difference between a pin prick and a cotton swab. Yet it gave new hope to the half-million people living with paralysis from spinal cord injuries.

The actor and activist died Sunday of cardiac arrest while he was being treated for a systemic infection from a bed sore, a common vulnerability for people living with paralysis.

There was, however, nothing common about his determined and very public road back from his 1995 fall that left him paralyzed from the neck down. With two broken cervical vertebrae and a damaged spinal cord, experts predicted that he would never be able to feel or move below his shoulders. But he defied all odds.

Before Mr. Reeve, it was widely accepted that most of any recovery from spinal cord injuries occurs in the first six months and is largely complete by two years. But according to his physicians at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mr. Reeve's case was the first to demonstrate significant recovery beginning five years after his initial injury. With intense treatment and exercise, Mr. Reeve began to regain sensation and movement in most of his body in late 2000 - including telling the difference between the touch of cotton and a pin and moving his right wrist, the fingers on his left hand, and his feet.

He was by no means cured - and the reasons for his progress are not yet entirely understood - but his partial recovery exemplified the kinds of startling breakthroughs only recently believed impossible in the treatment of those paralyzed from spinal cord damage. Accordingly, Mr. Reeve also personified a powerful argument for relaxing the ban on embryonic stem cell research - and was cited as such by Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic challenger, in last Friday's presidential debate in arguing for that research.

"Chris Reeve exercises every single day to keep those muscles alive for the day when he believes he can walk again," Mr. Kerry said, "and I want him to walk again." Even if Mr. Reeve still lived, that may have been far too hopeful a statement. At the same time, Mr. Reeve's unexpected progress underscores the varied advances increasingly being made these days by neuroscientists - and the need to not close off potentially fruitful areas of research. His tireless advocacy for that truly made Mr. Reeve a super man.

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