updated 10/11/2004 1:16:01 PM ET 2004-10-11T17:16:01

Actor Christopher Reeve could have been expected to live to about age 65. But bedsore infections can undermine even the strongest spinal cord patients and cause an early death as it did for Reeve at age 52.

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Reeve was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident in 1995.

“He should have had about 20 years,” said Dr. David Apple, past president of the American Spinal Injury Association and medical director of the Shepherd Center, a specialty hospital in Atlanta that treats spinal cord and brain injury patients.

But people confined to wheelchairs are prone to getting bedsores that can become infected, and quadriplegics have the added danger of infections from tubes to breathing machines, Apple said.

To really heal a persistent bedsore, patients often must be hospitalized, have surgery to cut away the damaged skin, and have a new skin flap put in its place. It’s six to 12 weeks before they can gradually return to sitting in a wheelchair again and resume activities.

“We have patients who just don’t want to do that,” Apple said.

The alternative is treatment with antibiotics, but spinal cord patients often have had repeated courses of such drugs.

“It’s not hard to get a resistant strain of bacteria that even newer drugs can’t cure,” Apple said.

And once an infection spreads to the bloodstream — a dangerous condition called sepsis — “it can be difficult” to treat with any drugs, he said.

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