"Still Me" -- How Christopher Reeve coped with his survival challenges

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - June 1998

On Memorial Day, May 27, 1995, actor Christopher Reeve was thrown headfirst from his horse during a jumping competition. Unable to free his hands from the bridle, his 215 pound body rammed his head straight down onto a jumping rail. The blow shattered the first two vertebrae in his neck. His body collapsed in a heap. He was unable to move or breathe.

"I was fighting for air like a drowning person," he said. Paramedics stationed at the jumping derby rushed to him and, within three minutes, were able to start pumping oxygen into his lungs. "I'm very lucky they reached me so quickly," Chris said, "because after four minutes of not breathing, brain damage begins."

When Chris regained consciousness after the surgery to immobilize his neck he assessed his situation. He was totally paralyzed. "It dawned on me," he said, "I was going to be a huge burden to everybody, that I had ruined my life and everybody else's. Not fair to anybody. The best thing to do would be to slip away."

Chris could not speak because he had no ability to exhale air. When his wife Dana came into his room they made eye contact. He mouthed to her "Maybe we should let me go."

Dana started crying. She said "I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You are still you. And I love you."

Chris said that Dana's response to him "made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and commitment....My job would be to learn how to cope with this and not be a burden. I would have to find new ways to be productive again."

Recreating his life and identity was slow and filled with many difficult feelings to overcome. Feeling helpless is very hard to adjust to. How would you react if you woke up each morning to discover that your body was paralyzed? That you could not breathe on your own? That you could not feel sensations anywhere in your body? For months after the accident, Chris felt anguish each morning as he awoke to the reality what happened and knew what kind of day he was facing.

Survivors of catastrophic accidents think obsessively about what happened. Chris did. He says that for the first year he wondered over and over about the accident. The jump was a relatively easy one. Why did his horse Buck balk at this jump? Was it a freak accident? Did he move forward in the saddle before he should have?

Chris said "But I've learned that to speculate endlessly about what happened serves no purpose other than to torment myself. Regardless of exactly what happened, I know now that I can't relive the event forever. If I made a mistake, I've got to forgive myself for being human."

As soon as possible, Chris started a rehabilitation program. He said, however, "I had a hard time realizing that I was going to spend quite a long time in an institution devoted to the disabled. I couldn't accept myself as one of them."

Chris almost died several times. One night the tube pumping air into his lungs popped out. How do you yell for help when you are suffocating? An alarm went off and help arrived in time.

He knew he had to try to get his lungs working again. He announced to his doctors that on the first Monday in November he was going to try to breath on his own. As the medical team assembled he remembers thinking to himself "I've got to do something, I have simply got to. I don't know where it will come from, but I have got to produce air from someplace."

They unhooked him from the ventilator and told him to try ten inhales. The instruments detected that he was able to draw in a tiny, but measurable amount of air. The second day he did much better, drawing in 450 cc's of air with each inhale. The next day he did even better. The group cheered his success. With practice he was going to be able to breathe on his own for a few minutes at a time.

To his dismay, Chris discovered that his insurance company limited how much rehabilitation work they would pay for. They would pay for his long-term care for life, but not for much rehabilitation.

He began to inquire about what is done and not done for people with spinal cord injuries. He felt angry about what he learned. "One of the reasons why insurance companies deny essential equipment and care is because only 30 percent of patients and their families fight back. While this allows insurers to save enormous amounts of money, they would save even more by providing patients with the things they need."

Chris went to Washington to testify about the lack of funds for research into ways to help people recover from spinal cord injury. His advocacy and leadership led to him being elected chairman of the board of the American Paralysis Association.

At age 42, Chris had appeared in over 30 motion pictures and television productions and in and many plays. His role as Superman made him an internationally acclaimed star. He had a bright future ahead, a good marriage, and happy family.

Did the accident change his future or destroy his family? No. His family adapted to his condition and became closer than ever. He accepted an offer to direct an HBO movie and did so well that it was nominated for an Emmy.

Research into spinal cord injury has received a huge push forward. Old beliefs about damage to the spinal cord being impossible to reverse are being challenged by breakthrough research. Regeneration of nerves is now seen as a realistic possibility.

What is the most difficult lesson he learned from all this? "I know I have to give," he said, "when sometimes I really want to take." He said he needed live so that his children can turn to him for advice instead of holding back because of self-pity or anger in him, and what kind of life would it be for Dana if I let myself go and just became a depressed hunk in a wheel chair?"

All of this took extreme effort, but he was successful because he knew that who he was was not his body. Other people, following Dana's lead, knew that too.

Christopher Reeve was not seen or talked about as a paralyzed man in a wheelchair who used to have an acting career. He was always thought of as the star of Superman movies who had an accident and became paralyzed.

Hopefully this way of thinking will make more people realize that no individual with a spinal cord injury, polio, head injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, or other physical challenge "is" his or her condition. Each person is an individual who has a difficult physical condition to cope with. The perspective "still me" is true for every physically challenged person. Just look in their eyes.

Still Me, by the late Christopher Reeve, is a powerful story of how a person can overcome an extreme, life-disrupting accident and manage to find fulfilling new life directions. Highly recommended.

For more information write to:

Christopher Reeve Foundation
P.O. Box 277
FDR Station
New York, NY 10150

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