The following article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Science of Mind Magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).
Science of Mind’s Spiritual Hero of the Year 2003:
By Mitch Horowitz
It would be easy to depict Christopher Reeve as a symbol of hope and determination in the face of an overwhelming disability; as a tireless activist for causes affecting people with disabilities; or as source of inspiration for others coping with paralysis or disease. The recipient this year of medicine’s highest public service honor, The Lasker Award, Reeve measures up to all of these things. But, in reality, the actor and activist leads a life at once smaller and greater than all of them.
In selecting Reeve as the Spiritual Hero of 2003, Science of Mind chooses a figure who is possessed of a unique – though deeply questioning – spiritual life. Whose life typifies – yet in so many ways differs from – that of millions of Americans who struggle with, or are touched by, severe disability.
As he would be the first to say, Reeve is not a hero of the cinematic variety. “I don’t want to sound so noble,” he told National Public Radio last year, “There’s times when I just get so jealous, I have to admit. You know, I see somebody just get up out of a chair and stretch and I go, ‘No, you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing and how lucky you are to do that.’ ”
Reeve is not free of the things that make us human. He is, first and foremost, an ordinary man coping with a profound burden: The Superman of the movies was left quadriplegic in a horseback riding accident more than eight years ago. But the dignity, reach, and depth of his struggle make him something much more than ordinary.
A Different Kind of Hero
Prior to the 1995 equestrian accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve was uneasy with questions that touched on life’s meaning. Raised as a Presbyterian, he drifted from brief flings with Scientology to rebirthing sessions to motivational workshops, without finding a spiritual perspective with which he felt at home. In recent years, this has changed. “Of necessity I’ve discovered things within the mind or within the spirit – I don’t know exactly where it’s located – that never probably would have made themselves known to me without the accident,” Reeve said in a radio interview last year. “…Oddly enough my mind probably turned against me more before the accident than afterwards.”
Today, Reeve holds a set of core beliefs that have emerged in his public statements since the time of his accident. They are:
- a dogged certainty that the grace of something higher emerges when we muster the will to face our tragedies;
- the belief that our minds wield a crucial measure of control over the health of our bodies;
- and the principle that we have the potential to grow beyond what we are told is possible.
When Reeve first suffered his spinal injury, medical authorities believed that spinal tissue could not regrow, severely limiting expectations for recovery. On a five-level rating devised by the American Spinal Injury Association, Reeve was ranked an A – the most severe condition. But as time passed, the unexpected occurred.
In what one neuroscientist called “a miracle,” Reeve discovered in 2000 that he could move his left index finger. Moreover, by 2002 Reeve had regained some level of movement over about 20 percent of his body and physical sensation over nearly 70 percent. “I don’t take kindly to ultimatums,” he told the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail this year. “I think doctors should be very careful before they tell a patient, ‘You only have a year to live’ or ‘You’ll never walk again.’”
Reeve and his doctors attribute his success, in part, to a rigorous and dedicated exercise program he has maintained since the accident. There is speculation that Reeve’s exercise regimen may have reestablished some kind of brain-body pathway that was lost when his spine was injured. But according to what Reeve told the English newspaper The Observer this year, mental exercise has made a powerful impact, too:
Much of what happens to our bodies is determined by our minds. In 1997, I developed a severe infection on my left ankle due to a shoe being too tight. I was told I’d probably have to have the leg amputated before the whole system was infected. I remember drawing a line in the sand and thinking, ‘You can’t have my leg, I’m going to need it.’ [He tried powerful antibiotics,] ‘which helped, but after eight days I developed an allergy. I was up at our country house in the Northwest Massachusetts, and I remember sitting for hours on the porch staring at the mountains, picturing my ankle the way it used to be and reminding myself that the body wants to heal, to be whole. It took six months, but now you couldn’t tell the infection was ever there.
Medicine and Politics
Reeve is as much a pragmatist as an idealist. “I don’t believe in false hope. I don’t believe in wishful thinking,” he told Barbara Walters last year. And he is quick to insist that repairing a spinal cord injury takes far more than positive visualization alone. This has driven Reeve to become a political activist for causes that affect the disabled. Recently, he has thrust himself into the very public debate over embryonic stem cell research.
Like many advocates for the disabled, Reeve believes that embryonic stem-cell research is vital to finding new cures for debilitating diseases, such as paralysis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Opponents, however, equate stem cell research, which involves the extraction of stem cells from a fertilized egg, with abortion. Siding with the opponents, President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2001 banning all federal funding for the research.
Reeve has since become one of the most outspoken critics of the ban. In his lobbying efforts and in many public forums over the last two years, he has emphasized the promise of stem cell research and the irony that that the fertilized eggs previously used in such experiments had been cast-offs from the many in-vitro fertility clinics in America – they would otherwise have been discarded as biomedical waste. So far, though, Reeve’s reasoning has won few converts in the current administration.
Especially critical of the role that some religious groups played in curtailing stem cell research, Reeve told the English newspaper The Guardian last year:
We’ve had a severe violation of the separation of church and state in the handling of what to do about this emerging technology. Imagine if developing a polio vaccine had been a controversial issue. There are religious groups – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believe – who think it’s a sin to have a blood transfusion. What if the president for some reason decided to listen to them, instead of to the Catholics, which is the group he really listens to in making his decisions about embryonic stem cell research. Where would we be with blood transfusions?
The following day, Reeve issued a statement on the website of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation apologizing to the Catholic Church and to “the faithful of any religion who may have been offended” by his remarks. “However,” he insisted, “I do believe in the separation of church and state. Our government should not be influenced by any religion when matters of public policy are being debated.”
“Nothing Is Impossible”
While Reeve is adamant about the need for research advances, he isn’t waiting for new discoveries – he’s creating his own possibilities. Reeve is the first to admit that his personal wealth allows him to afford medical care that is far out of reach to most Americans. (He’s also been an advocate for insurance reform.) Nonetheless, neuroscientists call Reeve’s progress astounding.
When Reeve regained limited movement and a sense of physical sensation, “he did what everybody thought was not possible,” Dr. John W. McDonald, director of the spinal cord injury program as Washington University School of Medicine toldThe New York Times last year. “He had the highest level of injury and no recovery for five years. Now he’s improving everyday.” What makes Reeve’s advances all the more remarkable is that they fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that any recovery in a spinal cord injury will occur solely within the first six months to one year.
What could account for this apparent miracle? Reeve attributes it to a combination of the best that medicine has to offer and to the power of his own thought system and beliefs:
In the seven-plus years since I’ve been injured, I have never once had a dream in which I’m disabled. I don’t know why. I think it’s probably because I’m firmly convinced that I am going to walk again. But scientists have been working on a study, and the results will be published at some time, [saying that] if you dream very actively – if you’re sailing, if you’re running, if you’re climbing a mountain or going for a bike ride or whatever – you are firing motor neurons in your brain the same way as if you’re actually doing that activity. So perhaps part of my recovery is due to the fact that even while I’m asleep I’ve been exercising my body.
Whatever the causes, Reeve’s case has a brought new sense of determination to many researchers and patients. Years ago, there was simply no progress in many degenerative or paralytic diseases. “Today,” Reeve wrote in 2002, “all that has changed. Since the time of my injury, scientists all over the world have been steadily moving forward, although they are not progressing as rapidly as many patients would like. At least they have been saying publicly, and most of us believe privately, that it is no longer appropriate or necessary to use the word ‘impossible.’ ”
The title of his most recent book, Nothing Is Impossible, is a motto for all forms of adversity. “When I say nothing’s impossible,” he told NPR last year, “I don’t mean that pigs are gonna fly. But I’m talking about inner resources that we may not know much about, but that we can draw on, and you don’t need to nearly die in order to discover these resources. We are capable of so much more than we know. We’re just sometimes afraid to venture in that direction.”
Ambassador of the Miraculous
Earlier this year, Reeve visited Israel – one of the nations that has taken the lead in stem cell research since the 2001 funding freeze in the United States. He was there to extol the nation’s technological advances, and to both seek and spread inspiration. “I saw something very, very extraordinary,” he told interviewer Larry King:
I met a young man who was an Arab Israeli, and he had been been injured for two years, but he underwent surgery within two weeks of his injury, and his injury was just a little worse than mine. He was injured from high up in his chest, then paralyzed all the way down. And two years later – I met him today – he is able to walk with the use of parallel bars, and this is because of the surgery that has been done here in Israel. And it’s the most remarkable case of a human recovery that I’ve ever seen. It moved me tremendously.
Reeve encountered other patients in Israel – including a Druse woman who learned to walk again after a neck fracture – who defied conventional medical expectations. He was visibly moved by what he saw – and the affections ran both ways. “You are my hero,” a 26-year-old man paralyzed from the waist down in a suicide bombing told Reeve.
In these encounters, and many others, Reeve has, in a way, become an ambassador of the miraculous. With his own recovery and the promise it suggests, his efforts to assist others, and the cases he brings to the world’s attention, we find the hero that Christopher Reeve truly is: An embodiment of the voice within each of us saying, never give up. He described as much when he told NPR that it was possible for everyone to overcome paralysis – physically, mentally, and spiritually:
By that I don’t mean literally try not end up in a wheelchair. I mean just avoid the paralysis of indecision brought on by low self-esteem or by feeling that the world is an overwhelming place or that we’re inadequate or that we can’t reach our goals. Just let go of that negativity. Let go of feelings that we aren’t enough, because we are and because we have strength, perseverance. All that is available to all of us. As I say, you don’t need to be a Superman, or you don’t need to become paralyzed, in order to maximize your potential, but I do think that inaction is the worst. I think that, in a way, paralysis is a choice. I’m physically paralyzed, but in some ways I’m freer than ever, and I think the same can apply to other people.
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How to Give Help, How to Get Help
The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (www.christopherreeve.org) helps to fund research into paralysis. It has provided tens of millions of dollars in research grants to the neuroscientists around the world. The Foundation also makes “quality of life” grants to help improve the daily lives of people living with paralysis, particularly spinal cord injuries. To donate to the Foundation or to otherwise become involved, visit their website either at the address above or at www.crpf.org.
Formed in 2002, The Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center (www.paralysis.org) is a sister organization to the Paralysis Foundation. It helps answer questions for people with severe disabilities and their families. An information bank for those living with paralysis, the Center maintains specialists who answer and research questions on a broad range of subjects – from care giving to insurance matters – and provides referrals. It can be reached at the website above or by calling 800-539-7309.
Email Mitch at: email@example.com