The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on May 17, 1998 · Page 44
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 44

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Salina, Kansas
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Sunday, May 17, 1998
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Page 44
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His paralyzing fall was three years ago. "Golly, what a mess," his mentor Katharine Hepburn wrote him. But he's quit feeling sorry for himself: "I want to let people know what it's like to go through this to give hope and encouragement." I PS A BRIGHT spring morn- ng at Christopher Reeve's lome in Bedford, N.Y., and ic's recounting his adven- ures from the night before, rirst he was in a boatyard, icrubbing the residue of win- er from his beloved sailboat, the Sea Angel. "This is the time of year to put the boat in the water," he explains. "After I cleaned things up, I went out for a sail." He sailed alone, peacefully, joyfully, pulling at the sail with his strong arms, his lungs full of sea air. Then daylight came and he woke up in his bed at home, breathing on his ventilator. "It happens every morning. I recall my dreams from the night before because they're so vivid and intense. ... I'm always whole in my dreams. Always." May 27 will mark the third anniversary of the horse-riding accident that left the actor, now 45, paralyzed from the neck down. But from the neck up, he's noticed startling changes. Though his body is "shut down and forced to The uncommon hrisiopher BY JEFFREY ZASLOW be still," he says, his mind is compensating for the loss and getting stronger. Childhood memories have returned in sharp focus. He's able to give 45- minute speeches without notes. An accomplished pianist before the accident, he now finds himself playing complicated Brahms and Gershwin pieces in his dreams. And he says having a clearer mind helped him craft his new heart-wrenching autobiography, Still Me, which he dictated word by word. Best known for moving faster than a speeding bullet in four Superman films, Reeve once lived an incredibly active life. His home is filled with reminders: There's the breathtaking painting of a boat, the photos of his family skiing, the piano he'd play late into the night, the encyclopedia of aviation he'd consult when he piloted his own plane. Before the accident he was so vigorous, he says, it was "torture" sitting still, even on a blanket at the beach. "I remember saying to my brother: 'If we couldn't have the freedom to 4 USA WEEKEND • May 15-17,1998 Reeve, last year with wife Dana and son Will. Thanks to surgery that wired his skull to his vertebrae, stablizing his broken neck, Reeve is able to sit upright. He feels slight sensation in some parts of his body, such as his left leg and upper spine. scuba-dive, to fly, to play tennis — life wouldn't be worth living. It would be better to pull the plug.' " R EEVE UNDERSTANDS why his mother argued vehemently to take him off life support after his accident, causing a fight among his loved ones. "She was complying with something I'd talked about many times. She wanted the best for me." Now, in a study overlooking his duck pond, he explains how he copes with a COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD TRENT FOR USA WEEKEND profound stillness. Through rehab, he has learned to breathe on his own for 90 minutes, but he's unable to talk if he's not hooked up to his ventilator. Even with the 'Vent," he'll often run out of air in mid-sentence. He moves his wheelchair by exhaling short or long breaths into a tube near his mouth. "It's essential to have a balance between acceptance and denial. On one hand, I have to accept that I'm in a wheelchair; otherwise, I'd be depressed all day. But the other part of my mind thinks: 'What's it going to take to get me out of this wheel- I'd say to Dana, 'Read me another one. ... Let me go with those memories.' " "The letters were a source of solace," says Dana, a singer and actress. "They got us through every day." She is compiling a book, Letters to Christopher Reeve. Hollywood friends have been very supportive, Reeve says, although a few found his plight "so devastating they didn't know what to do." He heard from Katharine Hepburn, his mentor after they starred together on Broadway in 1975. "She wrote me a note in typically cryptic Hepburn fashion. "I've become president of a dub Iwouldntwanttojoin." chair?' because it's unacceptable. We were not meant to be in wheelchairs." He vows that someday he'll raise a glass and toast his caregivers, especially wife Dana, who helped him survive by reminding him, "You're still you." He also expects to walk, and experts say he just might. "These aren't false hopes," says Harlan Weinberg, one of his doctors. "Spinal-cord research has advanced dramatically." Reeve meets often with scientists, and they've shown him a-.brighter future, not just for the 250,000 Americans with spinal-cord injuries, but for people with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. He revels in talking about a study in which paralyzed rats were treated with antibodies to facilitate nerve regeneration. The rats now walk. Martin Schwab, a pioneer in spinal-cord research, may conduct human trials next year in Zurich, Switzerland. Reeve has volunteered to go there as a test subject. "Chris has helped our cause immeasurably," says Mitchell Stoller, president of the American Paralysis Association. He has helped increase APA funding substantially. "Perhaps most important, he's brought a new enthusiasm to the scientists. He's inspired them." In Reeve's words: "I've become president of a club I wouldn't want to join." After Reeve was injured, he got 400,000 letters. "I heard from almost everyone I've ever known, even people I hadn't talked to since third grade. I was really buoyed up by those letters. It just said: 'Golly, what a mess.' " Was that curt note good enough for Reeve? "Sure, because I know how much she cares. It's probably overwhelming for her." Reeve says it's vital that he not lean too hard on his friends, wife or children, ages 5, 14 and 18. "There are times I need something, or to be consoled. But I have to give instead of taking, so I can set people free. I have to make sure my children can go off to school without worrying about me." L AST SUMMER, Reeve had an infected ankle, and before it cleared up, doctors feared they'd have to amputate his foot. At the time, Dana was rehearsing for a play. Reeve wanted to talk out his fears but didn't want to ruin her ability to concentrate. Says Dana: "His impulse is to let me live my life. ... It's an incredibly generous impulse." Reeve is proud of how active he's been: writing his book, giving 20 speeches a year, directing an HBO movie. He says his presence on that set had an effect on the cast and crew. No one whined; no one was late. They noticed Reeve got his job done with- Continued, next page INTERVIEW EXCERPTS Keeping children safe "You don't want to go through life on tiptoes. Let children have their freedom and spontaneity. But don't let them ride a bike or skate without helmets. When they're roughhousing, make sure they're not putting headlocks on each other." The benefits of a positive attitude The mind and body are connected. When Nixon was lying through his teeth, he got phlebitis in his leg. The body expresses what the mind is trying to suppress. But if you have a positive attitude, and the faith and love of people around you, you heal faster." 4 Remaking Superman Superman Lives, a sequel starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Batman's Tim Burton, is stalled in production. The Batman movies are very dark. I've always seen Superman as the opposite of that He's a daylight character. He's above ground. The movie needs gentleness, strength, generosity. I hope they dont try to be too hip with it" The search for a cure "If you throw money at a disease, you'll find a cure. Scientists don't want to work in obscurity and be underpaid. They want to be where the money is, where the action is, maybe win a Nobel Prize.... But just like politicians, you trust some more than others." Why he doesn't watch his old movies "I know them all so well. Usually, there's something to watch on another channel." Insurance companies Reeve has fought hard for coverage of items like a backup ventilator. "It's in the interest of insurance companies to deny [claims], because only 30 percent of people who are denied fight back. Fight the denial. Always." USA WEEKEND • May 15-17,1998 6

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