In Memory of Christopher Reeve (1952 -2004) – Actor Paralyzed in a Riding Accident
Riding Accidents unfortunately are all to common and one man that brought the seriousness of these accidents to the public forefront was Christopher Reeve. Many a rider has lost their life in their dedication to the sport and they are not forgotten or far away from our thoughts. Here is the story of an incredible man who many have heard of and know the basics of his accident but have never perhaps really looked into it.
Christopher Reeve was born September 25, 1952 in New York City where he continued to reside, Reeve first gained prominence in 1978 when he was tapped to star in the feature film revival of “Superman,” which he starred in three further sequels. He has achieved critical success in serious film roles such as “Death Trap,” “The Remains of the Day” and “The Bostonians.” Strikingly handsome at 6 ft4, Reeve has also had a busy stage career at small but prestigious theaters throughout this country and in London. In May 1995 Reeve became paralyzed from the neck downwards and wheel-chair bound following a horse-riding accident.
Reeve was injured while riding in the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association finals at the Commonwealth Park equestrian center in Culpeper. He was considered an able rider and a proponent of equestrian safety and was about to pose for a safety poster sponsored by the U.S. Combined Training Association.
While serious injuries among competitive riders are rare, USCTA statistics show that cross-country events like this one generate 72% of all riding injuries because they involve jumping over fixed obstacles with speed. “The sport takes a lot of balance and training, but everybody who’s ridden has fallen. And people who were watching him felt that he was a good rider,” says Anne Mercer, executive director of the association, a 10,000-member national equestrian group based in Leesburg.
Reeve had been approaching the third of 18 jumps — a triple-bar about 3 1/2 feet high –on the course when his horse, Eastern Express abruptly stopped, causing Reeve to “roll up the horse’s neck and fall on his head on the other side of the jump,” according to Monk Reynolds, the equestrian center’s owner.
“he came up a little too hard, and the horse didn’t find the right spot to make the jump.”
Paramedics responded immediately and found Reeve unconscious and not breathing. They gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and he regained consciousness in the ambulance. Reeve was transported to a Culpeper hospital, and then flown to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. His wife, Dana, and their son, his parents and his ex-girlfriend Gae Exton (the mother of his two other children) have been at his bedside.
The star, an experienced rider who owns several horses and competes regularly in equestrian events, was wearing a helmet at the time.
John A. Jane, the University of Virginia neurosurgeon treating Reeve in Charlottesville, revealed Reeve suffered fractures to the top two vertebrae, considered the most serious of cervical injuries, and also damaged his spinal cord .
“He has sustained complex fractures to the first and second cervical vertebrae . . .,” Jane read from a statement at a news briefing. “Mr. Reeve currently has no movement or spontaneous respiration. He may require surgery to stabilize the upper spine in the near future.”Reeve, who is 42 and has enjoyed a prolific screen and stage career, was thrown from his horse and landed on his head during the second of three trial events in an equestrian competition. He was wearing a helmet and a protective vest at the time.
While Jane said it is “premature” to speculate on Reeve’s long-term prognosis, medical experts were painting a grim picture.
“It is a devastating injury, and yet the person is fully aware of what is happening,” said Edward C. Benzel, chief of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
There are seven vertebrae in the neck, and any break in the first four, accompanied by a serious spinal cord injury, will cause severe impairment of breathing and quadriplegia. What was not spelled out in Jane’s statement is the extent to which Reeve’s spinal cord was disrupted.
The spinal cord carries nerve fibers traveling both from the brain to the rest of the body and from the body back to the brain. Those coming from the brain are responsible for voluntary control of muscles. Those traveling toward the brain carry sensation.
Cameron B. Huckell, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins University medical school, said yesterday that “most people who have a complete disruption of the spinal cord don’t even make it to the hospital. Only patients who have been rapidly resuscitated survive the initial event and then have a 60 to 70 percent mortality rate at one week.”
Lawrence S. Chin, assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, concurs. “If there is absolutely no indication of some type of recovery at 48 hours, the chance that there will be recovery is very, very low,” he said.
“His friends from the industry are just devastated,” said Scott Henderson, Reeve’s agent at the William Morris Agency is Los Angeles. “Chris has such an incredibly strong will that if anyone can make a recovery, he can.” Staff writer David Brown and special correspondent Vicky Moon in Charlottesville .
After his spinal cord injury, which meant he required a respirator to assist his breathing for the rest of his life. He became very involved in campaigns supporting handicapped children and paraplegics, and founded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in 1998 to promote research into spinal cord injuries, testifying before a Senate subcommittee in favor of federal funding for stem cell research.
Reeve continued to work after ongoing rehabilitation. He acted again in films, including a television production of Rear Window (1998) and directed two television films with health themes, In the Gloaming (1997) and The Brooke Ellison Story (2004). His autobiography Still Me appeared in 1998.
Waking up isn’t as tough as it used to be.
For years after the accident, Christopher Reeve’s eyes would snap open at six and, in the morning stillness, with Dana Morosini, his wife, still asleep at his side, he’d have to run through it all again in his head. In his dreams, he was never paralyzed – he’d be skiing and horse riding and sailing, like before – so it took a daily effort of will, there in the silence, to drag himself back to the reality that he couldn’t move his body below the neck, or even feel it.
later he often didn’t wake until the alarm goes off at eight, and then it was straight into his morning routine: he took a bucketful of vitamins, and then his nurse and a helper flexed his legs and arms for at least an hour, keeping them supple and helping to stop them leaping about in uncontrollable spasms. They taped electrodes to his limbs and stimulate his muscles for another hour – he tried to eat breakfast at the same time – and then they washed and dressed him and lifted him into his wheelchair, strapping his arms down to the arm-rests and adjusting the padded support which cradled his head and neck. They connected a pipe to his throat and hooked it up to a ventilator, and they attached a valve that collected his urine in a tube concealed in his right trouser-leg. By that point, it was usually getting on for noon.
“I learned years ago to come to terms with having so much done for me by others,” Reeve says, in a loud, resonant monotone that doesn’t quite drown the hissing inhalation and exhalation of the ventilator. He’s an imposing presence at 6ft 4in, and the wheelchair seat lifts him high off the ground. An air pipe is positioned in front of his face, and he can adjust the chair by blowing on it. His features are pinched, his eyes red-rimmed, but the handsomeness is still there, the good looks that, when he was younger, would have made any career but that of movie star seem profoundly misguided. I am four inches shorter, swallowed up by a low, deep armchair, with the result that Reeve peers down at me from a commanding height as he speaks. It isn’t the way the able-bodied and the wheelchair-bound normally interact.
“Sometimes I won’t even notice what’s being done,” he says of his morning man-oeuvres. “My mind just goes miles away. It’s all become such a routine that it’s second nature.” Some things haven’t changed, though. “I’ve still never had a dream that I’m disabled,” he says. “Never.”
It sounds strange to say it, but Reeve was, in a certain sense, a fortunate man, and he knew it. Bedford, in Westchester County, New York, is a cartoonishly idyllic slice of rural America – dappled lanes, Colonial-era houses, gleaming white church spires and grass so vividly green it might have been treated with extra chlorophyll. He had money – enough to live in a vast, airy, modernist home, secluded on a hill shrouded by woodland; enough to have had it adapted to include, among other things, a lift; and enough to pay for a small army of aides, including his longtime nurse, Dolly Arro, who glided into the room at intervals to feed him water through a straw.
He spent £270,000 on treatment each year, and much of the equipment used in his therapy was donated by the manufacturers.
“You know, the accident’s power is diminishing. Do I wish it hadn’t happened?” It’s an absurd question, but he answers it anyway. “Absolutely… but I find that it’s best to think, well, what can I do today? Is there something I can accomplish, a phone call I can make, a letter I can write, a person I can talk to, that will move things forward? We have to learn to live a new life that would not have seemed possible. But that’s not something you need to be Superman to accomplish.”
Reeve, a quadriplegic for the last nine years of his life who vowed that he would one day walk again, died of a cardiac arrest on October 10, 2004 which was caused by complications from an infected bedsore. He was currently co-directing Everyone’s Hero.
His wife, actress Dana Reeve, issued a statement thanking “the millions of fans from around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years.” His mother, Barbara Johnson, told the syndicated TV show “The Insider”: “I’m glad that he is free of all those tubes.”
“The world has lost a tremendous activist and artist, and an inspiration for people worldwide. I have lost a great friend,” said actor and comedian Robin Williams.
He was survived by his wife Dana and son William, as well as his two children, Matthew and Alexandra from his previous relationship. Sadly, his wife Dana was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 and died in March 2006 at the age of 44.
“Never accept ultimatums, conventional wisdom, or absolutes.” —Christopher Reeve
In Memory of Christopher Reeve.
- Lois Romano,Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, June 1, 1995; Page A01