Christopher Reeve Remarks at the National Press Club
Thank you very much for inviting me to join you today. In the past, I wouldn't have dared to face a roomful of journalists unarmed, but in the last few years I've become more of a risk-taker. What's the worst that can happen? Actually, don't answer that. But it's a pleasure to be here.
I've always been a practical person, not one to waste time pursuing unrealistic goals or dreams. But today's dreams can soon become tomorrow's reality in biomedical research. Scientists studying how the brain's cells and chemicals develop, interact, and communicate with the rest of the body have been making strides in alleviating the suffering of patients with Alzheimer's, strokes, Parkinson's, and MS, as well as brain and spinal cord injuries. Only recently researchers have discovered that stem cells, which have the ability to adapt to any environment in the body, will probably be the most important factor in curing all of these conditions. For example, in order to repair the damaged spinal cord, stem cells can be extracted from the ventricles of the brain or from bone marrow and genetically engineered to become nerve tissue. Highly successful experiments on mice have shown that when these transformed stem cells are transferred into the site of the injury, they apparently understand that their mission is to replace the damaged circuitry, which causes significant functional recovery. Mice that have had their spinal cords completely transected have been able to walk confidently across tightropes and climb rope ladders after this treatment.
You would think that these breakthroughs would be a cause for celebration throughout the disabled community. In scientific terms, we are very close to achieving the impossible; in practical terms, we have a long way to go. But it is very disheartening to hear a leading researcher announce, "give us a hundred million dollars and we can cure Parkinson's"; or, "if we raise 300 million dollars, we can find a cure for paralysis in 5 years instead of 15." The idea of spending 15 more years in a wheelchair being fed, dressed, and washed by others would be tolerable if the scientists were still in the dark and there was no hope of recovery. I think most disabled people would agree with me that it is very difficult to cope psychologically with the stark reality that our future now depends mostly on money.
We have to be smarter, do better. Medical research is the key to eliminating diseases, reducing human suffering, and lowering healthcare costs.
AIDS is a perfect case study. In 1984, the disease was considered a death sentence and our government spent nothing on AIDS research. Today, the National Institutes of Health spends approximately 1.8 billion dollars annually on new protocols. Now many individuals who would have been expected to die five years ago are healthier than ever, the virus nearly undetectable in their blood. Research sponsored by the NIH has led to the identification of genetic mutations that cause osteoporosis, ALS, Cystic Fibrosis, and Huntington's disease. Significant progress is being made in the battle against cancer.
It is very gratifying that the budget for research at the NIH has been substantially increased by Congress over the last few years. Last year, funding was up 15%. If we continue at that pace, the budget will have been doubled by the year 2003. Needless to say, Congress and the President must continue this commitment to research, because scientists receive grants for experiments that may take up to four years to complete. A cutback in the middle of that process could easily negate any progress that had been achieved.
In the meantime, while the budget for research is negotiated annually on Capitol Hill, Alzheimer's has crippled 4 million Americans. This disease alone costs our nation 100 billion dollars every year and this number is expected to rise dramatically as baby boomers continue to age. Parkinson's afflicts nearly half a million Americans and costs us at least 6 million a year. Another half million Americans suffer strokes each year, costing more than 30 million in medical treatment, rehabilitation, and long-term care. Diabetes afflicts nearly 16 million people. It is the leading cause of blindness, kidney disease, and limb amputations; and it costs our nation between 90 and 140 billion dollars a year.
We live in a time when the words, "impossible" and "unsolvable" are no longer in the vocabulary of the scientific community. This makes it all the more difficult to understand why both the government and the private sector are not doing more to relieve the human suffering that can afflict anyone in an instant. And why does the average citizen who is stricken with a catastrophic illness or disability still have to fight their HMOs and insurance companies for even the most basic necessities? In my own case, I was denied a backup ventilator, even though I am vent-dependent 24 hours a day. All machines fail at some point. Without a second vent, I would be facing a life-threatening situation. Fortunately, I was able to buy one myself, but what about all the others who don't have a spare $3500 lying around? When I was in rehab, I was allowed to go home for Thanksgiving, but only on the condition that I was back in my room by 8 P.M. If I stayed out longer, the insurance company's position was that it would prove I no longer needed to be in rehab and they could stop paying for my treatment.
Sitting in a chair for more than 4 years now has given me plenty of time to think about many of the distorted and irrational values in our society. For example, all the researchers now agree that the damaged spinal cord can and will be repaired. But, they caution, recovery will only benefit the fittest. This means that the patient must exercise diligently to prevent muscle atrophy, and the loss of bone density and cardiovascular capacity. Special equipment ranging from electrodes that stimulate muscle groups, tilt tables that allow people to stand and bear weight, exercise bicycles, and treadmill therapy, which enables even a quadriplegic to walk while suspended in a harness, are all available. When the cure comes and signals from the brain once again reach the body, individuals who have kept in shape will be able to be rehabilitated relatively quickly and will no longer need payments from their insurance company. But no company will pay for this proactive therapy which would save them hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run. So most spinal cord injury victims simply deteriorate while they continue to fight for basic quality of life coverage. Meanwhile, the CEOs of many insurance companies are making salaries in the neighborhood of 300 million dollars a year. How much profit is reasonable and justifiable?
The same distortion of values is evident in entertainment, sports, and politics. Why do studios pay some of their biggest stars 20 million dollars a picture? Does even the most gifted athlete deserve 91 million dollars over 7 years to swing a bat and catch a baseball? Why is it that so many of our elected officials end up in office primarily because they have been able to outspend their opponents? At the other end of the spectrum, why has the NIH since its inception IN 1940 had to plead incessantly for enough money to battle every disease in the encyclopedia?
The prosperity that we've enjoyed in the 90's has spawned a new breed of individuals who have amassed tremendous fortunes at a very young age. Many of them have reaped the rewards of a stock market that seems to have no upper limit. Others have moved swiftly into the fast lane of the information superhighway, and achieved a net worth in the billions long before their 40th birthday. Often they literally don't know what to do with that much money. Unfortunately, philanthropy is not something many of them perceive as an important responsibility of the wealthy. While of course there are a number of notable exceptions, too many of these young billionaires become obsessed with privacy and are more likely to build half a dozen homes in different parts of the world than to give back to society.
In the early years of this century, the notion of what it meant to be a "gentleman" informed the actions of the very rich - the Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and the like. They too built "cottages" in Newport, and enjoyed their yachts. But they also created foundations, endowed universities, built hospitals and libraries, and donated land for public use. I don't think it's a wild stretch of the imagination to believe that if they knew that 300 million dollars would cure paralysis in 5 years instead of 15, they would have reached for their checkbooks.
But we must not wallow in nostalgia for the Gilded Age, when in fact, there is so much potential in the present. Ten corporations could each give 30 million dollars without any undue hardship. When people ask me what are my hopes and dreams for the new Millennium, my answer is I hope technology will not diminish genuine human contact and compassion. I still believe that when people really make the effort to understand each other, the possibilities are limitless. The solutions to the problems we will face in the 21st century --- such as overpopulation, the environment, education, and disease --- will only be achieved by every one of us doing our part. We must appeal to the government, the private sector, venture capitalists, corporations of all sizes, and every individual who can only afford to give 5 dollars to help further the cause. You in the media can lead the way by creating awareness and affecting public opinion.
In the last hundred years, we invented the automobile, the airplane, and weapons of mass destruction. We journeyed to the moon and built shiny new cities throughout the country. We concerned ourselves with material success, convenience, and a higher standard of living. Now it's time for America to take care of its own. The life expectancy for Americans has practically doubled over the course of this century. Now it is our responsibility to ensure that from cradle to grave, these years are ones of quality and productivity, not pain and suffering. The time is now, at the dawn of a new Millennium.
At this point I would be happy to answer any questions. Thank you very much.