Superman actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed when he fell from a horse in 1995, died in a New York hospital of heart failure October 10, 2004
My father was Superman.
He also starred in some movies, wearing a cape and tights, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
But, that’s not why he was Superman to me.
To millions around the world, he was Superman for the way he fought tirelessly to discover cures for spinal cord injuries after sustaining one himself by falling off a horse in 1995 and dedicating his life to achieving his dream of a world of empty wheelchairs.
No, to me, my father was Superman because he was my hero: Dad.
I was not yet three years old when he got injured.
Spinal cord research was in its infancy.
There was no phone number for my mom to call to ask someone what to do next.
There were no experts reaching out to suggest the best treatment and medical equipment or to connect us to the right rehabilitation facilities and hospitals.
And there certainly was no promise that an individual living with a spinal cord injury would ever walk again, let alone stand, or regain the secondary functions most of us take for granted.
My parents worked tirelessly, through the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, to make sure that spinal cord research would move beyond the dark space into a realm of light and hope.
That is where we find ourselves today—on the cusp of delivering on my father’s dream.
A young Will Reeve reaches over his father’s wheelchair and places his hand on Christopher Reeve’s arm
A family photo of Christopher Reeve surrounded by his relatives, including his son Will and wife
Will Reeve celebrates with his medal having completed the New York Marathon back in 2016
COURAGE IS CONTAGIOUS
There’s something my father used to say and which I use frequently today to not only honor his legacy, but to imbue a new generation with his timeless spirit: ‘A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.’
For as long as I can remember, I have known many such heroes.
The paralysis community—that global collection of people with spinal cord injuries, their loved ones and caregivers—is full of them.
My father reminded me daily that nothing was impossible as he tackled insurmountable challenges with sheer force of will.
As a child, I remember waking up early to greet my parents and jumpstart the day, often before dawn.
Dana Christopher Reeve pictured together
My father would already be awake, going through strenuous, nearly impossible, physical rehabilitation to will himself to walk again.
There was a sign on the wall, ‘For those who said I couldn’t do it, for those who said I shouldn’t do it, for those who said, ‘It’s Impossible, See you at the finish line.’
Those words continue to guide me every day.
I see that same courage in families impacted by paralysis – people whose lives are changed in one second, who muster the strength to persevere, to find a silver lining and go forward.
Some even dedicate their lives and bodies to the research that will bring cures to millions more.
‘Oh, to be a rat,’ my dad used to say.
He was frustrated that promising research wasn’t turning into tangible solutions and that the pace of discovery to delivery could be painstakingly slow.
He was determined to be a catalyst for scientific discovery and was the spark behind many breakthroughs in activity-based therapies and regenerative medicine.
He motivated the scientific community to work harder, better and faster for cures.
My father often said, ‘At first, your dreams seem impossible. Then they seem improbable. Then, when you summon the will, they become inevitable.’
He knew that cures for spinal cord injuries were inevitable.
I don’t know if he could have predicted the impact of technology, though.
Right now, technology is clearly outpacing basic science. Technology is bringing groundbreaking treatments to the forefront of care – to the front lines, where my dad always wanted to be.
Recently, we announced some of the biggest news in spinal cord research history: four young men, who had been completely paralyzed, were able to stand, move their legs and experience improved bowel and bladder control, sexual function and temperature regulation.
These unprecedented recoveries resulted from repurposing an off-the-shelf epidural stimulator, which is normally used to treat chronic pain.
After the device is surgically implanted on a patient’s spine, it reminds the spinal cord of what it can do, even years after an injury.
I know my father would have been busting down the doors to learn about and experience this new frontier.
I also know he wouldn’t have rested until every person in need had access to this technology.
Christopher Reeve starred in the original Superman in 1978 and played the DC character in three subsequent movies up until 1987
Dana and Christopher Reeve share a laugh. Dana herself was a successful actress and singer
Dana Reeve hugs her husband. The actress died at the age of 44 in 2006 after losing her battle with lung cancer
At the Reeve Foundation, we knew we needed to get this breakthrough to more people.
So, we launched The Big Idea, a fundraising campaign to fast track this groundbreaking treatment.
Right now, there are no evidence-based treatments for spinal cord injury other than standard medical care.
But the Reeve Foundation believes every end has its beginning. The Big Idea is the beginning of the end of paralysis.
CAREGIVING IS A CORNERSTONE
We’re constantly seeking those new therapies, but we also remain vigilant about finding new and innovative ways to improve the quality of life of individuals living with paralysis, which is why the Reeve Foundation maintains its dual mission of ‘Today’s Care. Tomorrow’s Cure.’
My mom said, ‘Life is a series of choices; it’s what you do with them that defines you.’ What defined her was her unwavering commitment to caring for my dad and loving him just the same as she always had after his injury.
Christopher Reeve pictured at the 68th annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles
She also dedicated herself to helping people like her who had been thrust into a terrifying new world by creating the Reeve Foundation’s Paralysis Resource Center (PRC), a free, comprehensive source of information and services for people living with paralysis and their caregivers.
The PRC, which captures her legacy of love, commitment and compassion, offers a lifeline of support to help families navigate the short-term realities and long-term challenges of paralysis.
Our Quality of Life Grants Program has awarded more than $23 million in financial support to fellow nonprofits that align with the Reeve Foundation mission.
These grants support accessibility initiatives, services for caregivers and other projects that break down barriers and help make the world more inclusive.
I have watched in awe as people regained critical functions once thought to be lost thanks to the therapies offered through the foundation’s NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) to retrain the spinal cord to ‘remember’ the pattern of walking.
Every NRN participant has experienced well-documented changes that range from improved health and quality of life to standing and stepping.
There is even a cutting-edge NRN facility in Gatwick—Neurokinex.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for helping people with paralysis achieve the highest standard of quality of life.
YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
To quote my father once more: ‘It comes down to us. We have the power to make an enormous difference.’
We need to mobilize the next generation of advocates to carry out this mission. There are many ways to help, both big and small; the rewards are life-changing.
Our community is the most loving, positive and inspiring group of people you could ever hope to meet. (Follow @ReeveFoundation to see for yourself.)
TKim Alexis, Dana Reeve, Christopher Reeve, their son Will, John Davidson, Rod Gilbert, Sam Rosen and Mark Messier, Sandy McCarthy and Jason Priestley pose for photos while attending ‘SuperSkate 2001’ January 7, 2001 at Madison Square Garden in New York City
You can host a fundraiser, run a marathon or Tough Mudder with Team Reeve or make a donation – it all goes a long way and has a real, visible impact on our mission.
This is our moment. This is our movement. Together, we have a chance to make a difference, to transform millions of lives right here, right now.
We are facing enormous obstacles, but all we need is the support of people with the strength to persevere and endure.
We need heroes—we need you.
To learn more, visit: ChristopherReeve.org