America Online (AOL) Live Chat
America Online Chat with Christopher Reeve - July 6, 2000
Acclaimed actor and director Christopher Reeve joined AOL Live for an exclusive LIVE chat about developments in stem cell research and its importance to finding cures for debilitating diseases. Reeve is an advocate in raising national awareness and funding for spinal cord injury and other conditions of the brain and central nervous system. Check out below what this American hero had to say!
Jesse Kornbluth: We're delighted to have one of our five or 10 favorite people on the planet with us tonight. Welcome, Christopher Reeve.
Christopher Reeve: Thanks very much, Jesse.
Jesse Kornbluth: We have lots of people here and lots of questions. And many of them really come to one thing, which is: Chris, we haven't heard from you since a commercial at the Super Bowl and little news snippets. What are you up to these days?
Christopher Reeve: I'm working on a number of things. Unfortunately, I spent all of last year developing a project called Heartbreaker, which was then shelved by the studio when the new management came in -- which is, unfortunately, the custom of the industry.
Jesse Kornbluth: What was Heartbreaker about?
Christopher Reeve: It was a romantic comedy set in New York and really about a man who finally gets over his fear of commitment. I'm also working on my health, which is really important. I do physical therapy about three or four times a day for a total of about four hours. And I spend a lot of time in collaboration with researchers working around the world on behalf of our foundation. And I'm also adapting a book to a screenplay, actually a teleplay for ABC, which I hope to shoot probably late in the fall.
Jesse Kornbluth: Let's talk about your activism on behalf of people who have spinal injuries. What are you doing there, and is your connection to HealthExtras part of that?
Christopher Reeve: Well, yes. I am the spokesman for a company called HealthExtras, and the reason I agreed to speak on their behalf is because they are providing a really essential and extraordinary service. And what you do is you subscribe to HealthExtras, which you can do over the Internet just by going to healthextras.com -- sorry, maybe it's .org, I don't remember which. But you pay $10 a month, and in the event that you have a catastrophic illness or a disability, after a one-year waiting period they will write you a check for $1 million, and that's tax-free. It is a supplement to your insurance. And generally the best way to use it is to keep your life going, to pay the mortgage, to keep your house, put your kids through school, all of these expenses which are not covered by medical insurance.
Jesse Kornbluth: In the past, I remember you've been very critical of both insurance companies and the government for being slow to help those who suffered these debilitating situations.
Christopher Reeve: Yes.
Jesse Kornbluth: $1 million is probably not enough, but it's a good first step. What else do you see that can and should happen?
Christopher Reeve: Well, most importantly is that the lifetime cap on your health insurance should be raised from -- so when people buy [health] insurance today, they probably don't realize they only have $1 million of coverage and then after that, they're out of luck. And I am working with Senator Jeffords of Vermont and Senator Specter and Senator Harkin to raise these lifetime caps. And I'm also fighting to help people to understand that insurance companies routinely deny essential services and products that people need when they are ill or injured.
Jesse Kornbluth: OK. Any --
Christopher Reeve: And the reason that they do this is because only 30 percent of people who are denied fight back. But I must stress that you should not roll over. If you keep at it and threaten a lawsuit, they will finally come through. For example, in my case, I'm dependent on a ventilator 24 hours a day, and they would not provide me with a spare. So if anything were to go wrong with this ventilator, I would be in very, very deep trouble. And I fought back and finally was given a second ventilator. But I urge people to not be intimidated by their insurance companies. And I support HealthExtras because they are doing something very admirable. And the way it will work for them is that everybody can afford [it], so they will do a lot of volume. And there are relatively few catastrophic cases, so they can afford to deliver their promises to people. So it's a win-win situation. And for that reason, I support them.
Jesse Kornbluth: OK. Let me ask a question that many of our members are asking. Do you see any significant research breakthroughs?
Christopher Reeve: I'm very happy to say that the discovery of the potential of human embryonic stem cells is about as important as a -- to medical research as the discovery that the world is not flat. And these stem cells are found in many places. Some diseases can be cured by adult stem cells, such as bone marrow cancer and heart disease and sickle cell anemia. MS, Parkinson's, ALS, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, all these diseases will be cured by stem cells because they are able to become any tissue in the body.
Christopher Reeve: So, for example, in the case of spinal cords, they literally can be injected into the site of the injury, and they will instinctively know that by being placed in that environment, that they are to become nerves. And they will then fix the broken connection, and the patient will recover. In Parkinson's, also, you would inject stem cells into the motor cortex of the brain, and the stem cells would know to produce dopamine and cure Parkinson's. The same thing is true with diabetes. They can be inserted into the pancreas, and they will produce insulin. So this really is a miracle. It -- and the potential for stem cells was only discovered in 1998, but it's going to just change everything.
Jesse Kornbluth: OK. When we saw you in that Super Bowl commercial, you appeared to be walking, and that was an extremely powerful and inspiring sight for many people who wish to see you walk again and who wish to see themselves walk again. As I recall, there was some criticism of that commercial. But when I hear you talk about stem cells... then it makes it seem as if that's not unrealistic at all.
Christopher Reeve: That's true. And I would not be so irresponsible as to do such a commercial without the scientific understanding that will make that a reality. It is a motivating vision of something that can and will happen. And I did it because I feel that when people see a goal or see an end result, it spurs them to work more quickly, and the issue takes on greater urgency.
Jesse Kornbluth: Were you surprised or upset by the criticism of that commercial?
Christopher Reeve: I was delighted by the criticism!
Jesse Kornbluth: Because?
Christopher Reeve: Because it got people talking about the issue. And you take a commercial that was seen about twice, and here we are seven months later, still talking about it.
Jesse Kornbluth: While we're on the subject of television commercials, I read recently that you want to direct them, but in a very special way -- that you only want to direct commercials for companies whose policies and products you approve of. Is that correct? And could you explain to us how you came to feel that way?
Christopher Reeve: Yes, that is correct. And it has happened, because I've had two near-death experiences, and the legacy of that is that I don't want to spend time on meaningless pursuits. So there are many positive and informative and useful messages that can be disseminated on television that actually can help people, and so that's what I want to do. And I also am trying to encourage companies to think like HealthExtras. I call it ethical free enterprise, which really is the way we have to go in the 21st century. It's OK to make a profit, but in so doing, the company should be providing a valuable service to society. And there are all kinds of opportunities, from health to the environment to education, there are many, many ways that we can harness our desire to succeed and have material success while at the same time helping to serve the planet of the....
Jesse Kornbluth: And have you had any takers? Have any companies called you and said, "Boy, this is just what we're looking for, we'd love to be in business with you"?
Christopher Reeve: There have been discussions. Right now there is a strike of the actors who appear in commercials, the Screen Actors Guild, so I'm not involved right now because I wouldn't cross the picket line which is up. When the strike is resolved, then I'll get back into it.
Jesse Kornbluth: Numbers of our members have sent the following question, which is: What can I do to help your cause? What specific thing would you like for me to do?
Christopher Reeve: Well, we are always very grateful to receive financial support.
Jesse Kornbluth: And where would that be sent?
Christopher Reeve: And I guess the easiest way to do it is simply to log onto www.paralysis.org, and that will take you to our Web site, which will explain what we're doing and how money can be safely transferred. That would be great.
Jesse Kornbluth: A number of members have asked a variation of this, which is: After reading Still Me, which [I] just loved, I was curious if you're going to write anything else.
Christopher Reeve: No, probably any writing will be in the form of essays or op-ed pieces or speeches about the issues that we've been discussing here. I addressed the 1996 Democratic convention, and I'm hoping to do so again in August.
Jesse Kornbluth: Here's one: I'm 13, and I want to grow up to cure people like you. You're a great inspiration to me, and I admire you so much. How can you have so much hope? Could you talk about your inner discipline?
Christopher Reeve: Well, I think I'm lucky that in my life before the accident, I worked in a profession that demands a high degree of discipline. Acting requires a thick skin because you are often rejected for parts, and then when you do get a part, you have to have the discipline to give it your all every time you go onstage or in front of a camera. And sometimes you have to do it when you don't feel like it. So I've taken that training into -- so, for example, on a morning when I don't feel like breathing for an hour off the ventilator because it's very difficult, I just make myself do it anyway. And that actually is a very powerful thing that people can do for themselves, and that is, establish a routine and a discipline that you follow no matter what. It gives you a greater sense of control, and that's important.
Jesse Kornbluth: Several of our movie-minded members tell us that they have read somewhere that there might be another Superman movie. Do you care? Does that part of your life seem just history?
Christopher Reeve: Well, I think the Superman is a very important piece of American popular culture, and he is a symbol of hope and kindness and compassion that is very important. But the character is much more important than the actor. The actor who plays him. So I was the custodian of the part in the 1970s and 1980s, and even if I were on my feet today, it would be best if someone else were to be the Superman for this generation.
Jesse Kornbluth: A therapist asks: It is tough to know what to say to patients in similar situations. What was one of the best things you heard from a therapist?
Christopher Reeve: That it is absolutely essential to keep as much control over your life as possible. Don't give up and let others baby you or make too many decisions for you. After all, even though your body doesn't work, your brain and your ability to communicate are still there. So I think control of decision-making, self-discipline, not giving up, all those things you do have control over and can help you feel a lot better about your situation.
Jesse Kornbluth: Let's just ask one more that numbers of people asked: Where do you see yourself in four or five years?
Christopher Reeve: In four or five years, I expect that I will be at some stage of a clinical trial. I'm not sure exactly where it will be or what the sequence of events will be, but most scientists are saying that clinical trials on this will begin anywhere from in the next six months to a year. And when it is safe for me to join a trial, when I am invited to join a trial, I am all ready to do it. I would think that by four or five years, if not completely cured, I will have -- I will have had substantial recovery, and that will make a dramatic difference.
Jesse Kornbluth: Well, as you know, you have the good wishes and the prayers of everyone here and of everyone who works at AOL, and we hope that you'll come and visit us often.
Christopher Reeve: OK.
Jesse Kornbluth: And let us know what we can do to help you and the people you want to help.
Christopher Reeve: Great. Thank you very much, very, very much.
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