The following article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Science
of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).
Ambassador of the
Minds 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
medicines 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 dont want to sound so noble,
he told National Public Radio last year, Theres 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, youre not even thinking about what youre 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
Prior to the 1995 equestrian accident
that left him paralyzed from the neck down, Reeve was uneasy with questions that touched
on lifes 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 Ive discovered things within the mind or within the spirit I
dont know exactly where its located that never probably would have made
themselves known to me without the accident, Reeve said in a radio interview last
Oddly enough my mind probably turned against me more before the accident
Today, Reeve holds a set of core
beliefs that have emerged in his public statements since the time of his accident. They
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 dont 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 Youll 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 Reeves 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,
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 Id probably have to have the leg amputated before
the whole system was infected. I remember drawing a line in the sand and thinking,
You cant have my leg, Im 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
couldnt tell the infection was ever
Reeve is as much a pragmatist as an
idealist. I dont believe in false hope. I dont 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 Gehrigs Disease, and Alzheimers
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
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, Reeves reasoning has won few converts in the
Especially critical of the role that
some religious groups played in curtailing stem cell research, Reeve told the English
newspaper The Guardian last year:
Weve 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 Jehovahs Witnesses, I believe who
think its 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
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.
While Reeve is adamant about the need
for research advances, he isnt waiting for new discoveries hes 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. (Hes also been an
advocate for insurance reform.) Nonetheless, neuroscientists call Reeves progress
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 told The New York Times last year.
He had the highest level of injury and no recovery for five years. Now hes
improving everyday. What makes Reeves 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 Ive
been injured, I have never once had a dream in which Im disabled. I dont know
why. I think its probably because Im 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 youre sailing, if
youre running, if youre climbing a mountain or going for a bike ride or
whatever you are firing motor neurons in your brain the same way as if youre
actually doing that activity. So perhaps part of my recovery is due to the fact that even
while Im asleep Ive been exercising my body.
Whatever the causes, Reeves 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 nothings
impossible, he told NPR last year, I dont mean that pigs are gonna fly.
But Im talking about inner resources that we may not know much about, but that we
can draw on, and you dont need to nearly die in order to discover these resources.
We are capable of so much more than we know. Were just sometimes afraid to venture
in that direction.
Earlier this year, Reeve visited Israel
one of the nations that have taken the lead in stem cell research since the 2001
funding freeze the United States. He was there to extol the nations 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 walk with the use of parallel bars, and this is because of the
surgery that has been done here in Israel. And its the most remarkable case of a
human recovery that Ive 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
worlds 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
By that I dont 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 were
inadequate or that we cant reach our goals. Just let go of that negativity. Let go
of feelings that we arent enough, because we are and because we have strength,
perseverance. All that is available to all of us. As I say, you dont need to be a
Superman, or you dont 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.
Im physically paralyzed, but in some ways Im freer than ever, and I think the
same can apply to other people.
* * *
How to Give
Help, How to Get Help
The Christopher Reeve Paralysis
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.