Washington Post Live Online with Christopher Reeve
Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002; 2 p.m. ET
In Christopher Reeve's new book, Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life, he describes how he has recovered some motion and sense of touch. The book is personal and political and deals with his testimony before Congress as well as his vigorous routine of physical therapy. Reeve was online to talk about his book, his ongoing recovery and his future movie projects.
The transcript follows...
Washington, D.C. : Your new book is called "Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life." What is your new life like?
Christopher Reeve: That's a very big question. Obviously, my new life means adjusting to the loss of personal freedom, of learning how to depend on other people for the basic necessities of daily living, adjusting to the fact that I can never be alone. Those have all been a difficult tasks. On the other hand, on the positive side, it's given me the opportunity to relate to people in better ways. It's taught me to listen and communicate better with my family, my friends and strangers and it's given me the opportunity to try to help others. So many people who are suffering don't have a voice to represent them.
Greenbelt, Md.: Since you were able to move your fingers and feel, do you believe this will lead to a more significant recovery, and has this breakthrough made everyday life, i.e. talking, getting around, easier?
Christopher Reeve: The primary significance of my functional recovery is that there's no limit to what might happen in the future. The immediate benefit of my recovery is that I am very healthy, gaining strength, rather than deteriorating and laying the groundwork for therapies and a cure when the time comes. I'm still in the same wheel chair and still need nursing 24/7, but the future looks brighter and I feel better now that I have more use of my body.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do you believe that your fame has helped you maintain your positve attitude toward life?
Do you have any advice for those of us who are just average people dealt a devastating blow like your accident?
Do you feel your marriage is stronger as a result of your accident?
Christopher Reeve: No, I don't think my fame has influenced my attitude towards life. Fame has given me the opportunity to connect with scientists, politicians and the media to further our cause.
There is a new theory that exercise can lead to improved sensory and functional recovery even in chronic spinal cord injury. I would urge anyone who wants to know more about exercise programs to go to www.paralysis.org, which is the resource center of our foundation. The most important thing is not to give up and not to accept any ultimatums about what you can or cannot do. Remember that even if you don't feel like it, self-discipline is the key to progress, so maximize your potential by eating well, pushing the limits as best you can and know that help is on the way in terms of advances in rehabilitation and biomedical research.
I am very happy to say that our marriage started out from a place of true strength and commitment and has grown even stronger since my injury seven years ago.
Fort Meade, Md.: Have there been medical breakthroughs in paralysis or is your breakthrough coincidence, luck or due to such strenuous rehabilitation?
Christopher Reeve: My progress has been solely the result of a rigorous exercise program. There has been no medical intervention. However, I don't believe that exercise can achieve full recovery by itself. Fortunately, even though the pace of research has been slowed down in this country by political controversy, nevertheless, scientists at home and abroad are making significant progress with private funding and a number of researchers are already in human trials to treat spinal cord injuries and other conditions of the brain and central nervous system.
New York, N.Y.: Good afternoon, Chris.
People seem to be making a big deal about your "conversion" from agnostic to spiritual guy. Could you please clarify the change in your beliefs? Are they Christian, New Age, Buddhist, Taoist, or unclassifiable?
Christopher Reeve: My search for the meaning of faith in my life dates back to my childhood. I've gone down a number of roads and taken many detours along the way but several years ago I became a member of the Unitarian Church and I only wish that it hadn't taken so long to find a spiritual home.
St. Mary's City, Md.: Mr. Reeve,
With all the controversy surrounding stem cells from embryos, why not harvest stem cells from umbilical cord blood instead?
I've heard some incredibly hysterical arguments against using embryo stem cells. (The idea that this would motivate women to have abortions is insulting.) At the same time, I think getting stem cells from embryos raises tons of ethical questions.
With that in mind, my wife and I donated our baby's cord blood to a company that uses the blood for transplants. The company touts cord blood as preferable to bone marrow for treating various leukemias and anemias. But we also wanted researchers to have access to these stem cells.
Christopher Reeve: First of all, let me commend you for the donation of those adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are valuable for certain treatments such as sickle cell anemia, various blood diseases and bone marrow cancer. The problem is that stem cells taken from the bone marrow or the umbilical cord already have an identity and a useful purpose in the body. In other words, they have already been differentiated. In order to treat countless other diseases, scientists say they need to use embryonic stem cells which have no identity yet. They can become any tissue or cell type in the body. Almost every country in the world has grappled with the ethics of stem cell research and many of our allies such as the U.K., Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Singapore and Japan have decided that fertilized embryos that are not needed after successful implantation at fertility clinics are destined to be thrown away as medical waste should instead be used for research. I agree wholeheartedly with that point of view as long as there is strict regulation and oversight so that couples are not paid or exploited in the process.
Lyme, Conn.: You have testified before Congress. What do you think government should be doing that it presently is not doing?
Christopher Reeve: I would like to see the Senate pass a bill sponsored by Sens. Kennedy, Harkin, Specter, Hatch and Feinstein which would ban and criminalize reproductive cloning but permit government funding for therapeutic cloning. I would also like the public and our elected officials to understand that therapeutic cloning does not involve the destruction of life. I believe we can agree that human life is created by the union of male and female. Therapeutic cloning uses an unfertilized egg when it is only a cluster of about one hundred cells, then the nucleus is removed and DNA from the patient is placed inside the egg and within a few days stem cells can be harvested that are a genetic match of the patient. This is extremely important because the use of a patient's own DNA overcomes the problem of rejection by the patient's immune system. While we should pursue all avenues of responsible research it appears that therapeutic cloning will be the most likely technology to cure diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to Parkinsons, diabetes, cancer, leukemia, ALS and many other conditions that afflict 128 million Americans and millions more around the world.
Silver Spring, Md.: When, if you did at all, did you reach your lowest point (emotionally)?
Christopher Reeve: Right after I regained consciousness, four days after the accident in 1995. I awoke to learn that I was paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on my own. At that time I thought my life was worth nothing but my family thankfully convinced me otherwise. Since then I've had periods of depression but nothing so serious as to compromise my daily existence and the sense that I'm moving forward.
Potomac, Md.: What are five of your favorite movies, and who are five of your favorite actors and actresses? Also, what is your favorite (or one or two favorites) of the films that you have been in? Thanks.
Christopher Reeve: It's too hard to pick five favorites off the top of my head. Two favorite films that I was in are "The Remains of the Day" and "Superman, The Movie."
Bethesda, Md.: You have been my hero since I was a little kid. I heard when people meet you, that the most common reaction is to try and shake your hand. Your response is to just tap you on the hand, is that correct?
Christopher Reeve: People instinctively reach out to shake hands with almost anybody when they first meet. I don't have a problem with that because it only takes a second for them to realize I can't respond and I try not to make them feel embarrassed. Many people will start to shake my hand, realize that it's not going to work and then they touch my hand which is very appropriate.
Harrisburg, Pa.: All the best to you in your courageous fight on healing. Many have stated that the mind is the greatest healer. You are an inspiration to many to always look ahead and to keep trying. How much of a difference do you think a positive attitude makes? Are there times when you become discouraged, and how do you handle it?
Christopher Reeve: Whenever I become discouraged my immediate response is to go into action. That might mean reaching out to a friend, going someplace, doing more exercise, talking about it with close friends and family to resolve an issue. The most important thing is not to let moments of discouragement grow. As soon as you feel discouraged, try to do something about it. Even small changes in your routine can make a difference.
Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Reeve, it is wonderful that you are making the progress you have described, but the fact is that you are not the average person. You have the financial ability to support your treatment and your family -- the average person in your situation certainly does not. I pray for your recovery, but wonder whether you really give hope to those who say "Sure, if I had his money and celebrity . . . ."
Christopher Reeve: There's no need to be cyncial about my progress or anyone else's. Of course, I'm trying to maximize my recovery but it is equally important to me that my success will translate into better therapy for the people who are less privileged. For instance, the exercise bike that I use currently retails for about $10,000. It could be manufactured for a tenth of that price and probably will be once there is convincing evidence that the bikes promote health and recovery. That applies to other therapies as well. There are activity-dependent recovery programs at various centers around the country that can provide much of the same equipment and therapy that I received. My hope is that insurance companies will soon realize the cost benefit of paying for proactive therapy. My intention has always been to create a win-win partnership between patients and the health care system in this country.
New York, N.Y: Chrsistopher, have you tried hypnosis? I've been reading about and there is a lot of new things worth researching.
Christopher Reeve: No, I haven't but I have heard that hypnosis can be very beneficial. Thank you for the suggestion.
Washington, D.C.: The photos in your book are very evocative. Can you tell us about them?
Christopher Reeve: The photographs were taken by my son Matthew during his senior year in college when I was writing the book. I sent him chapters and asked him to come up with a photograph that would be evocative of the subject. I thought he did a wonderful job.
Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Reeve,
It's wonderful to hear that you are doing so well.
I understand that there is a drug, which, if given within 48 hours of a spinal injury, helps reduce swelling and prevents further damage. Were you given that drug after your accident?
Christopher Reeve: Yes, I was but it is only able to reduce the swelling by about twenty percent. That, of course, is helpful but not enough to prevent severe spinal cord damage. Fortunately, researchers in Israel are experimenting with cells in our own body called "macrophages" which are scavenger cells which eat waste and debris at the site of an injury. They take a spinal cord patient's macrophages, multiply them by the millions and if they are reintroduced into the injury site within two weeks of the trauma, the severity of the injury is greatly reduced. This is the most promising new therapy for spinal cord victims right after injury.
London, England: Hi Christopher..
Thank you for your inspiring endeavors. What are your current and future movie projects?
Christopher Reeve: I'm hoping to direct a film in late spring. The script is finished and we have the finances in order. It all depends on casting but I hope the actors I'm interested in will be available.
Cullman, Ala.: Do you have your on personal physical therapist?
Christopher Reeve: No, I don't. I was trained by the staff of therapists at the Kessler Rehab Institute in N.J. during the summer and fall of 1995. After I came home I was able to teach the aids who helped me with my daily care (getting in and out of bed, etc.) to help me continue and expand the programs I learned at Kessler.
White Plains, N.Y.: As a PT that worked with you at Burke Rehab Hospital -- did you find that the treadmill was much more challenging than the bicycle?
How have your bone density results changed?
Christopher Reeve: I am very grateful to the PTs at Burke who worked overtime after a long day of seeing many patients to help me step on the treadmill. The treadmill is an extremely useful form of therapy particularly for people with control of their upper bodies. If they train on the treadmill for just a few months, many of them can relearn to walk and no longer need their wheelchairs. Thanks to the treadmill as well as high dosages of calcium my bones are very strong. In fact, they're now just as they were when I was about thirty.
Virginia: How come there are no disabled actors and actresses in Hollywood? Is it taboo to have a disability?
Christopher Reeve: I don't believe that's quite the case, in fact, every year an award is given in my name to a young disabled performer emerging from the university system and embarking on a career. I know there are ballet companies with disabled dancers, theater groups with disabled actors and there have been a number of films both in theaters and on television that have brought more awareness of disability to the public. I don't believe there is any prejudice against disabled actors. There are opportunities but you're right, there could and should be many more.