Christopher Reeve grew up in New York with a dream to be an actor. As a teenager, he landed summer acting roles in theaters from Boston to Cape Cod. After earning his BA degree from Cornell University in 1975, he did graduate work at the Juilliard School in New York before beginning a professional acting career. Reeve had a series stage and television roles before his good looks and physique landed him the part of Clark Kent in the 1978 Superman movie. After starring in three Superman sequels between 1978 and 1987, he became universally associated with the comic book superhero.
On May 27, 1995, Reeve was riding in a cross-country equestrian competition in Culpepper, Virginia, when his horse balked at a jump and threw him. The 6’4” 215-pound Reeve landed directly on the top of his head, completely severing his spine at the C2 vertebra. Three days later, he woke up in the hospital with his head secured by screws to a metal ball and frame hanging from the back of the bed and the sounds of a ventilator pumping air into his lungs.
As the reality of his situation sunk in, Reeve became angry with himself for failing his wife and three children. After a few weeks in ICU, he suggested to his wife, Dana, that she consider taking him off life support. She told him, “I support you whatever you want to do because it is your life and your decision. But I want you to give it some time, and if you still want to die, I will help you. But I want you to know I will be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You’re still you, and I love you.”
Reeve agreed to give it a few months. Doctors achieved a spinal surgery milestone when they were able to re-attach his head to his spinal column using pieces of bone and titanium wire. The risky surgery made it possible for him to move his head from side to side and it gave him hope of one day being able to move his arms and legs. By late September 1995, Reeve had returned to his home in West Chester County, New York, and began to shift his focus from his paralysis to spinal cord injury research.
At the urging of fans and friends, Reeve decided to use his celebrity status to lobby for the causes of those with spinal cord injuries, and his schedule grew to be busier than before the injury. He traveled the country speaking at conferences and frequently went to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress in support of stem cell and spinal cord research. Reeve took great pride in being the spokesman for those who could not testify before Congress or call the President. He told the Associated Press in 1998, “I have the opportunity to make sense of the accident. I believe that it’s what you do after a disaster that can give it meaning.”
In 1999, the Reeves established the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Foundation to raise money for research labs across the country to explore medical break-throughs in the field of paralysis. In 2002, the Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center opened with a mission of providing information to people living with paralysis to help promote community involvement, health, and quality of life.
In October 2004, Christopher Reeve died at age 52 from heart complications; he was a quadriplegic for the last nine years of his life. During those years he directed several television movies, starred in a remake of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie and published two books about his life, including Nothing is Impossible. He lobbied tirelessly for paraplegic and quadriplegic causes, and his foundation raised more than 120 million dollars for spinal cord research. Thanks to these contributions, many neuroscientists believe that it is not a question of “if” but “when” quadriplegics will one day overcome their injuries.” Reeve’s efforts have given hope to those who live with little hope that their situations will change.
According to Reeve, “Do I wish it had not happened? Absolutely…but I find that it’s best to think, well, what can I do today? Is there something I can accomplish today – a phone call I can make, a letter I can write, that will move things forward? That’s not something you need to be Superman to accomplish.”
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable. If we can conquer outer space, we can conquer inner space, too.” Christopher Reeve