Video: Inspirational Reeve staff and news service reports
updated 10/11/2004 5:50:45 PM ET 2004-10-11T21:50:45

The legacy of actor Christopher Reeve won't be for soaring through the air and leaping tall buildings as Superman, but for bringing public attention to spinal cord research while in a wheelchair, medical experts say.

His greatest role was as a champion of sufferers of spinal cord injuries and an advocate of stem cell research.

The courage and determination Reeve displayed in trying to overcome his paralysis from a 1995 horse-riding accident far surpassed any of the feats of the comic book hero.

“He became a real-life Superman. His heroism, his courage was extraordinary,” Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of Britain’s Medical Research Council, told Reuters.

“Like many people who suffer some terrible injury, Christopher Reeve was reinvented by that experience and brought the kind of energy and enthusiasm that made him successful as a film star to an entirely different issue, with huge effect.”

Reeve, 52, died on Sunday of heart failure after having treatment for an infected pressure wound without realizing his dream of walking again.

Video: Spinal chord injuries When his accident first occured nine years ago, he was given a life expectancy of seven years due to the nature of the injury. Doctors said he fractured the top two vertebrae in his neck and damaged his spinal cord.

Partly due to his push for advances in spinal cord research, patients get better care for their injuries now then when he was first injured, one of Reeve's doctors Dr. Raymond Onders said on the "Today" show Monday. Onders performed an electrode implant procedure on Reeve.

Reeve worked tirelessly to promote medical advances, especially the controversial stem cell research that has emerged as a campaign issue this year.

Reeve, who was a fixture on Capitol Hill, became a part of the debate himself as recently as last week, getting mention on the divisive question in the presidential debate between President Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.

The Massachusetts senator, who has criticized Bush for limiting stem cell research, called Reeve “a friend of mine” and told viewers of the St. Louis debate: “And I want him to walk again.”

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Bush opposes the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells. He and Kerry face off for a third and final debate on Wednesday on domestic topics.

Since his accident, Reeve made personal progress to regain some feeling, established the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, a non-profit research organization, and used his fame to raise millions of dollars for research into spinal cord injuries.

By the time of his death, he had regained some movements in his fingers, elbows, knees and toes and was able to feel hot and cold, Dr. Wise Young, Rutgers University, told Katie Couric on "Today."

Enduring months of therapy to allow him to breathe for longer and longer periods without a respirator, Reeve emerged to lobby Congress for better insurance protection against catastrophic injury and to move an Academy Award audience to tears with a call for more films about social issues.

“Hollywood needs to do more,” he said in the March 1996 Oscar awards appearance. “Let’s continue to take risks. Let’s tackle the issues. In many ways our film community can do it better than anyone else. There is no challenge, artistic or otherwise, that we can’t meet.”

Dr. Young said that the "Christopher Reeve Bill" dedicating $300 million for spinal cord research was about to come before the U.S. Congress. 

Inspiration for stem cell research
Reeve provided hope and inspiration to other patients and lobbied for scientists to be allowed to conduct stem cell research in the hopes of eventually curing paralysis and other illnesses, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Reeve believed the strict limits by the Bush administration on the controversial areas of stem cell research, which he criticized as misguided and inadequate, could eventually be overturned by individual states.

“He has been our champion. If you think of spinal injuries you automatically conjure up a picture of Christopher Reeve,” said Paul Smith, executive director of the Spinal Injuries Association in England.

“When it comes down to seeking a solution to a broken spinal cord, I think he has pushed hard and undoubtedly raised a huge amount of money that wouldn’t have been there for spinal research. He has definitely made a big difference.”

It is because of Reeve that spinal cord injuries and stem cell research are so widely discussed, according to Smith. The fact that it happened to Reeve showed it can affect anyone, even Superman.

Reeve did not live long enough to see whether stem cell research could help restore movement to the paralyzed. The research is still in its early days and no one knows what advances it may bring.

“He pushed the boundaries as far as he could get them to go. I don’t think we would have gotten where we are now without him,” said Smith.

“If an answer is there and it comes out of stem cell research, then Christopher Reeve will have made his mark in history and will have undoubtedly been one of the people who brought it about,” he added. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report


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