updated 10/12/2004 10:51:40 AM ET 2004-10-12T14:51:40

Guest: Dr. Wise Young, Dr. Raymond Onders, Oswald Steward, Valerie Perrine, Peter Bogdanovich, Alanna Nash, Marc Buoniconti

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  The legacy of Christopher Reeve.  He soared to new heights of fame as the Man of Steel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - “SUPERMAN”)

CHRISTOPHER REEVE:  I‘ve got you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You‘ve got me?  Who‘s got you?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  A leading man in Hollywood, handsome, young and active, until a cruel twist of fate left him paralyzed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  I can be, you know, in the dumps for a couple hours and then find a new way to look at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Then his role as an advocate for the disabled turned Christopher Reeve into a real-life Superman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  And through it all, his rebounding spirit inspired hope.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  Giving up is unacceptable to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  His voice championed new medical research.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  I‘m visible enough that I can make a difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  His celebrated cause even fueled political debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY:  Science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Tonight, the inspirational life of Christopher Reeve.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  Good night.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  From studio 3K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

NORVILLE:  Good evening.  Actor Christopher Reeve is being remembered tonight as a man of courage.  He died Sunday after he went into cardiac arrest, ending his nine-year battle against the spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed.  Until the very end of his life, he beat the odds, amazing his doctors with his progress.  Tonight, we‘ll reflect with some of the people who worked with him in Hollywood, director Peter Bogdanovich and co-star Valerie Perrine.  Later on, Ron Reagan will be here to talk about the battle over stem cell research, a cause that Reagan knows firsthand and one to which Christopher Reeve lent his support in recent years.

But first, we‘re joined by Dr. Wise Young.  He‘s the doctor who first treated Christopher Reeve after his 1995 horseback-riding accident.  Dr.  Young is a professor and chairs the department of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University.  Also with us tonight, Dr. Raymond Onders.  He‘s a surgeon at the University Hospital in Cleveland.  In 2003, Dr. Onders performed electrode implant surgery on Reeve to help him breathe without the aid of a ventilator.

And gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us.  I‘m sure it‘s difficult to speak in the past tense about someone with whom you were so close.  Dr. Young, you first.  You met Chris Reeve just weeks after his accident.  What was not only his physical condition but his mental situation at that point?

DR. WISE YOUNG, REEVE‘S DOCTOR:  He was different from any other patient I‘ve ever seen.  Within six weeks after injury, he was already thinking beyond his own injury.  He was sitting in a wheelchair, on a respirator, still struggling to time his speech properly, but he was very pointed in his questions.  He asked me when—or rather, he asked me, Will there be therapies for—that will restore function to people with spinal cord injury?  And I said yes, and explained why.  And then I—he said, you know, When?  I said, Look, if we‘re lucky, we work very hard, we have all the resources that we needed, maybe in seven years.

So the next week, he went on television and said he was going to stand up on his 50th birthday and toast his family and friends.  And it‘s interesting, a lot of people thought that this was a prediction, but it wasn‘t.  It was a goal.  And he was setting more ambitious goals not only for the community but for scientists to really try to meet these goals.  And you know, he was the one who taught me you must have hope and you must be ambitious in what you try to do.

NORVILLE:  As a clinician, were you concerned that he was setting goals that were unrealistically unattainable, or feeling the pressure of this guy pushing you from behind, Come on, guys, speed it up in the lab, there are a lot of people like me who are counting on you to get the answers we want?

YOUNG:  Well, you know, I‘ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because prior to Christopher Reeve, I was reluctant to use the word “cure.”  I was reluctant to use the word “hope.”  And you know what that does.  This makes certain that the cure will never arrive.  And I think cure is not as painful or as misleading as it may seem.  A cure means really to—for doctors and for researchers to be ambitious for their patients, and that is not wrong.  And I think people should understand that we‘re trying for the cure.  We‘re not saying a cure is here.

NORVILLE:  But it could be in the offing.

And Dr. Onders, it was that push for the next step in his progression that led Christopher Reeve to you and the hospital there in Cleveland.  Explain to us the procedure that you performed in 2003 that allowed him to spend a great deal of time without that ventilator.

DR. RAYMOND ONDERS, SURGEON, UNIV. HOSPITAL CLEVELAND:  What we did is implanted electrodes onto his diaphragm through a new, minimally invasive approach that allowed his diaphragm to work and allowed him to breathe on his own.  Obviously, with a spinal cord injury, the respiratory center of the brain can no longer send an impulse to the muscle to breathe, and we‘ve been able to bypass that with our electrodes.  He was our third patient.  And our first two patients—our second patient, we failed on, and our first patient required two operations.  But since Christopher Reeve, he‘s the first of 10 consecutive patients that we‘ve been successfully able to implant.

NORVILLE:  And I know you spoke with him as recently as Friday.  What did the two of you talk about?

ONDERS:  You know, one of the things that Chris (UNINTELLIGIBLE) not only for his area of spinal cord research, but what else could we use it for.  You know, we—last Friday, we just found out from FDA that we‘ve gotten approval to use the same device that we used on Christopher Reeve into a new area to try to help people with Lou Gehrig‘s disease, or ALS, to try to lengthen their time before they have to go on the respirator.  And that‘s an exciting new area that we‘ll be working on.  And ideally, as Christopher said, is that he hoped that our device was a bridge to when he could breathe on his own.  That‘s what our hope was, is we designed the system so that when the time comes, we can easily remove it with no damage to the body.

NORVILLE:  Dr. Young, the reports told us that Christopher Reeve died as the result of an infection from a pressure sore.  Is that what the rest of us would refer to as a bed sore, that just became infected and couldn‘t be treated?

YOUNG:  Bed sores are very frequent, very common in people with spinal cord injury, although they do not usually cause death.  And I must say that we should perhaps hold off speculating on the cause of his death until we know for sure what really happened.  I think the only confirmed information that I have was that he had a cardiac arrest.  In other words, his heart stopped.  And this happened at home.  And they rushed him to the hospital, and he was comatose and he did not awaken from being comatose, being in coma.

And so I think the cause of this is not known.  And this has, I think, given rise to some anxiety in—amongst the families in the communities.  And I‘ve been trying to reassure them that, you know, people can and will live long lives if they take good care of their bodies.

NORVILLE:  Well, Dr. Onders was on the “Today” show this morning, and sir, you said that Chris had a life expectancy of about seven years and had obviously lived a bit more than nine years after his injury.  That scared a lot of people who are suffering with whatever nature of spinal cord injury.  Do you stand by that prediction, sir?

ONDERS:  For people with his level of injury.  What we know is that if you have a quadriplegia and you‘re on a ventilator, your life expectancy drops significantly.  That‘s where I‘ve been focusing our research on, is to help patients get off the ventilator.  If you‘re not on a ventilator with a spinal cord injury, your life expectancy is less than the normal person but it‘s much higher, about 20 years for somebody of his age group.  The older you are with a spinal cord injury, the more, you know, effect it has on you.

Obviously, on somebody like him, who‘s 50 years old, he‘s been great on working out his body, but you still can‘t get that usual cardiovascular workout when you‘re a quadriplegic.  And something we always worry about for patients as we‘re able keep patients in his age group older is, you know, Chris showed us how to use the FDS (ph) bike to try to stimulate and maintain your aerobic capabilities for cardiovascular health.  And that‘s something we have to work with on patients because we are able to keep them alive longer.

So it‘s not only the initial year of the injury, but it‘s what do we do for a patient later on.  And that‘s what, you know, Chris and Dana had worked with the Paralysis Foundation is quality of life, things that help patients with their injury.  And that‘s—you know, our research has really been in trying to help patients get off the ventilator because our No. 1 cause for death is a pneumonia.

NORVILLE:  Well, and pushing the envelope and getting further in the research was something that Chris Reeve was behind all the way to the end.  I mean, this was him just last week at the Rehab Institute in Chicago, talking about what his goal in life was.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  Never before have we had the chance to use biomedical technologies to address almost every disease that you can possibly think of.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Dr. Young, can you talk about the impact this man made on progress toward unlocking the questions that exist about spinal cord injury?

YOUNG:  Well, besides the obvious contributions of Christopher—that is, you know, he raised probably more money privately than anybody else that I know for spinal cord injury in the last 10 years—he encouraged the—he gave testimony to Congress, encouraged federal funding, and so forth.  But I think what is not talked about very frequently is the fact that he challenged the scientists to come up with findings faster.  He imbued a sense of urgency to our field, which was really—you know, it wasn‘t there in 1995.  And since his time, it really came.  You know, we felt that we had to do this quickly for Christopher.

NORVILLE:  And when you see him testifying as he is before Congress here and realizing what an ordeal it was for him not only to just get dressed and get to the venue, but to be able to speak as eloquently as he did—I mean, just an incredible role model.

One of the other things Chris Reeve did was form an organization that has been at the forefront of trying to push his agenda.  And joining us now in our discussion is Dr. Oswald Steward.  He‘s the director of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California Medical School in Irvine, California.  It‘s dedicated to finding cures for spinal cord injuries.  We should also note that Dr. Steward serves as the chair of the scientific advisory committee of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which is funding so many of these treatments that we‘re talking about.

Sir, when you look at what Chris Reeve was pushing for, how close is he to his goal of getting universal awareness of the problem and the need for research money out there?

OSWALD STEWARD, DIR. REEVE-IRVINE RESEARCH CTR.:  He certainly has reached his goal, I think, in terms of getting the issues out in front of all of us, not just the public, but also the scientists.  He‘s really been an amazing motivator.

NORVILLE:  And one of the things that he was behind, obviously, was the Christopher Reeve Act, which is, I gather, going to be presented before Congress in the next couple of weeks for a vote.

STEWARD:  That‘s what I understand.

NORVILLE:  What does it do?

STEWARD:  The act will establish centers for spinal cord injury research and treatment.  It will help to continue the mobilization of scientists and clinicians to try to find new treatments and really bring basic research to the clinic in the fastest possible way.

NORVILLE:  And finally, a question for all three of you gentlemen.  And I‘ll start with you, Dr. Onders.  What what did Christopher Reeve teach you?

ONDERS:  He taught me to have hope and to—he was a good patient.  I mean, in our example for our research that we did for him, he was a patient that agreed to undergo a surgery where we had never been successful before.  And that gave the hope for other patients to be involved in research.  And really, since that time, he‘s allowed many more patients to get involved in this type of research because he was not only a role model, he was one of the patients in a research protocol.

NORVILLE:  Dr. Young, you met him just weeks after the terrible accident.  What did you learn from Chris Reeve?

YOUNG:  He taught me not to be afraid.  I was afraid to use the word “cure.”  And I think what he taught me was to be ambitious for the people and to not be afraid to try to aim for the highest possible point.

NORVILLE:  And finally, Oswald Steward, what did you learn?

STEWARD:  I was listening to one of Chris‘s tapes early this morning and heard again his comments about different forms of paralysis.  He, of course, suffered from paralysis in terms of the ability to move, but many suffer from a paralysis that can make—makes it difficult for them to act.  And Chris really was a person who was an actor in all kinds of ways.  And that, I think, was the key lesson for me.

NORVILLE:  Yes.  There‘s more than one way to move, isn‘t there.  Dr.  Wise Young, Raymond Onders, Oswald Steward, thank you all very much for coming on.

When we come back, a little later in the program, Ron Reagan joins us to talk about his push for stem cell research.  And coming up next, actor Valerie Perrine and director Peter Bodganovich with a look at the actor who didn‘t let an accident stop him from doing what he loved.  We‘ll be back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - “SUPERMAN”)

REEVE:  I believe this is your floor.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, thank God!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  Where‘s the rock now?

VALERIE PERRINE:  It swung like a bat over the Grand Canyon! 

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) the other one.

REEVE:  The other one?  There‘s two of them?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That was Christopher Reeve with Valerie Perrine, his co-star in the first two “Superman” films.  She joins us now to talk about some of the movies that made Chris Reeve a star.  Also joining us this evening, Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Reeve in the 1992 comedy “Noises Off.”  He‘s also the author of a new book called “Who the Hell‘s In It?” portraits and Conversations about some of the actors he‘s worked with an admired.  And we thank you both for being here to talk about someone who I know was very special to both of you.

Valerie, let me start with you first.  You were assigned to work with this relative unknown on this movie called “Superman.”  What was Christopher Reeve like?  And how did everybody react to him?

PERRINE:  Well, he was tall, dark and handsome.  I mean, unbelievable.  I knew right away he was going to be a big movie star because as Superman and with the actors in it—Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando—I mean, it was a given.  It was a given.  And kind and easy to work with, really serious about his work, wanted to make—he was always there on time, always knew his lines.  It was—he was something!

NORVILLE:  And when you worked with him the second time around, after all of the fame and fortune of “Superman I,” was there a different Chris Reeve on the set with you?

PERRINE:  Well, actually, we did I and II at the same time, so...

NORVILLE:  So I guess the answer is no, he was pretty much the same.

(LAUGHTER)

PERRINE:  Yes, he was the same on II as he was on I.

NORVILLE:  One of those great Hollywood tricks.

Peter, I know when you saw “Superman,” you looked at Chris Reeve and had an immediate reaction.

PETER BOGDANOVICH, DIRECTED REEVE IN “NOISES OFF”:  Yes, I thought he was extraordinary, had a quality that reminded me of Cary Grant.  He could play straight and he could do comedy.  He had a sort of slight tongue-and-cheek.  The first “Superman” had that kind of dual quality, and he was ideal for it.

NORVILLE:  What happened when Chris Reeve was on the screen, as we see him here?

BOGDANOVICH:  Well, first of all, he‘s very good-looking and had a lot of command, a lot of control.  And as I said, he had this ability to play comedy, which is rare, and it‘s kind of a dry comedy, a higher comedy, because he didn‘t do slapstick, although he could.  We did slapstick together.  But that‘s rare, to find that kind of actor, you know, because comedy‘s tougher to play than drama.

NORVILLE:  But it seemed to be something he really liked because after you cast him in “Noises Off,” he said this about playing the role that he had and the kind of comedy that he did in the show.  We‘ll roll the clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  I like broad, physical comedy.  I like—people probably think that I‘m fairly kind of, like, restrained, sort of—certainly not taking pratfalls.  And yet I love doing that stuff, and I‘ve done a lot of it in the theater.  I just haven‘t really had a chance to do it in the movies, so it was fun because you‘ve got to—you‘ve got to let rip in this stuff.  You have to just totally let it go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Was it easy for him to let it rip when you guys were working together?

BOGDANOVICH:  Yes.  Yes.  He was marvelous at physical comedy.  And we had a great cast of people who could do that sort of thing, and one of the things we asked for was everybody to play these scenes straight through, almost like it was on the stage.  We‘d play 15 pages without a cut.  And you know, it takes a lot of skill to do that.  Chris was extraordinary.  And he was terribly serious, which was interesting.  I mean, he was very serious about the comedy and wanted to get it right and worked very hard on it.  And then when he actually came out and did the performance, it was very funny and didn‘t look like he‘d worked as hard as he did on it, you know?

NORVILLE:  What a lot of people don‘t remember about Chris Reeve, too, is that he had gone to the Juilliard School.  I mean, he was highly trained as an actor.  And frankly, his career took off before he was able to finish at Juilliard, so he skipped out on the last year.

BOGDANOVICH:  He was a highly trained actor, very serious in his craft, a real artist.  He cared, you know?

NORVILLE:  And Valerie, you‘ve got a great story about when the two of you were working together on one of the “Superman” movies—you have a fear of water, and I know there was a scene in which water was a big part of it, and Chris was very understanding.  Retell that for me.

PERRINE:  Well, I played Eve Teshmacher, and Christopher had Kryptonite around his neck.  And he was in this pool and he was dying.  And in the movie, I have to jump in and save Christopher, or save Superman.  I‘m petrified of the water, so I had a couple of glasses of champagne before I did it, and I got very giggly.  But Christopher got me together, and I jumped in.  And before I took off the Kryptonite, I said something like, How come I can never make it with the good guys?  And then I take this off, and off Christopher goes.  But I might have had a few takes if Christopher hadn‘t very, very nicely said to me, Valerie, you know, be careful how you dive.

(LAUGHTER)

NORVILLE:  So you only had to do it once because he understood how much you did not want to do that more than once?

PERRINE:  I only—I only jumped in once.  Oh, yes.  It was done on the first take.  I mean, we had close-ups that we did later, but the one of me jumping in, that was one take.

NORVILLE:  Yes.  Did you keep up with Christopher Reeve as the years went by?

PERRINE:  Me?

NORVILLE:  Yes.

PERRINE:  I would see him now and again socially, but I—no, not really.  It was—no.

NORVILLE:  And what do you...

PERRINE:  I think I stayed living in London.

NORVILLE:  And what do you think his legacy will be, Valerie?

PERRINE:  Oh!  The cure for—for—he‘s going to be known for the research that they‘re going to do in stem cell.  He‘ll be known for curing paraplegics...

NORVILLE:  Yes.

PERRINE:  ... because he‘s brought everybody‘s eyes towards it.  And I think he‘d like to be known as that, certainly not as Superman.  He was...

NORVILLE:  At the end of the day, Peter, is that, you think, what his legacy—I mean, obviously, it‘s what his legacy‘s going to be.  Is it what you think his life was meant to be?

BOGDANOVICH:  Fate, you know, is so strange.  He started out as Superman, acting the part, and he became—I mean, it‘s now a cliche—it‘s by now a cliche about Chris that he really became a kind of Superman in his—after that terrible accident because what he went through—I don‘t know how he did it.  I don‘t know how he did it.  And—but I suppose he approached it the way he did when he was working—very serious, very dedicated.  And he was going to find an answer to this.  Yes.  He was an extraordinary man.  The role that he was given to play in life was the toughest one I can imagine.

NORVILLE:  And he played it to great aplomb.  Peter Bogdanovich, thank you so much for being with us tonight.

BOGDANOVICH:  Thanks for having me.

NORVILLE:  Valerie Perrine, it‘s great to see you with us, as well. 

Thank you.

PERRINE:  Thank you.

NORVILLE:  When we come back, we‘ll be joined by the writer who conducted the last interview Christopher Reeve gave before he died.  What she learned from that meeting coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

NORVILLE:  In the last interview he gave before his death, Christopher Reeve talked about his health in the years since his accident and his determination to walk again.  The article is in the October issue of “Readers Digest” magazine.  Alanna Nash is the writer who interviewed Reeve and visited him at his home in suburban New York.

Alanna, you spoke with him, I guess, three months ago.  How was he doing then?

ALANNA NASH, INTERVIEWED CHRISTOPHER REEVE:  I spoke with him in August, and he was quite ill then.  Our interview had been delayed several times because he was in the hospital with a blood infection, the same kind of infection, I believe, that contributed to his death.  He was very ill.

NORVILLE:  And he talked about that too, didn‘t he?  He talked about how—just the whole body was kind of giving out on him at times?

NASH:  Yes.  He was very frank.  And I was surprised how frank he was in describing his illnesses.  And he said he‘d had three bad life-threatening illnesses, just in this year.  So he was a very practical person.  I think he realized that he really was fighting a terrible battle here in the last months.

NORVILLE:  Did you get the sense talking to him that he had a sense that this was a final battle that he was going through?

NASH:  Well, he never spoke like that.  He talked about plans for the future.  But certainly he was very intelligent.  And he kept up with everything to do with spinal cord injury.  And he knew that many people who have these kinds of debilitating injuries don‘t live much longer than seven years.  And he was nine-and-a-half years.  So I think certainly that was in the back of his mind.

NORVILLE:  Did he have the sense he was on borrowed time then?

NASH:  He never said that.  I think that, you know, he didn‘t like to think about that.  He said he liked to focus on the opportunities that he had.  The things at present.  And he didn‘t like to think about things that he didn‘t have.  But he was certainly conscious of not wasting time.  And when you spoke with him, he would formulate his answer.  He would take time to think about it in a little nugget so that he wouldn‘t waste a single breath, or a single moment.

NORVILLE:  The cover photo of the article is a beautiful picture of Chris Reeve and his son outside enjoying an afternoon‘s walk together.  Did he talk about how family life was obviously changed by his condition?  And Dana‘s, his wife‘s attempt to try to make life as normal as it was for any other family?

NASH:  Very much so.  He said to me as soon as I entered the house, he said it sure doesn‘t look like a hospital in here, does it?  And that was to say that Dana had really taken pains to make sure the family lived as normal a life as possible.  And you did get that feeling when you were there.  It was a lovely home.  It didn‘t feel like a hospital.  It didn‘t feel like a clinic.

He had at least one nurse around the clock, and he had someone administering to him while I was there.  But you did have that kind of sense that they were not dwelling on what was inevitable.  Certainly he did say—I asked him how he went on.  Because he‘d had so many setbacks in the last couple of years, and had not made much progress.

NORVILLE:   And he was pretty upset about that too, wasn‘t he?

NASH:  I asked him if he was angry.  He said no, he wasn‘t angry.  But he was frustrated many times that research wasn‘t happening as quickly in this country, though it was happening globally, certainly.  But he did draw strength from his family, and the fact that his children and his wife had all supported him.  And he was able to give back to them as well, and to other people.  He said feeling needed kept him going.

NORVILLE:  He also said to you that one of the things about which he was most proud was that he had actually been able to persuade others in a similar condition to his, to not choose suicide, to not give up.  But to find a way to go on living.

NASH:  Yes.  When he was first injured, he wanted to work out a suicide pact with Dana.  And she said let‘s give it two years, so...

NORVILLE:  Dana said that?

NASH:  Yes, she did.  I said to him, how long before you decided not to do it?  And he said well, it happened instantly.  There was never really a thought of it after that.  But when people do sustain such horrific injuries, they do have those thoughts oftentimes.  And so through his foundation, he made himself available to speak with others who were contemplating suicide after first being injured.  And I think he was proud to tell me that he hadn‘t lost anyone yet.

NORVILLE:  He also told you that in recent years, he had come to have a personal relationship with God.  How did he describe that?

NASH:  Well, I thought it was kind of a touchy subject with him.  Because he certainly was agnostic, if not atheist for about 50 years.  And then in latter years, he began to go to the Unitarian Church.  And I asked him about a relationship with God.  And he said his view of religion was the same as Abe Lincoln‘s.  He said when I do good, I feel good.  And when I do bad, I feel bad.

But you know Deborah personally I think he had a kind of secular spirituality.  Certainly he reached out to people individually.  And he said to me, the body isn‘t who you are.  The mind and the spirit transcend the body.  And without really using God in that sentence, I think he was speaking to that higher power, which made him reach out to others in this kind of condition and give them hope.

NORVILLE:  For a man who felt good when he did good, I bet he felt pretty good there at the end.

NASH:  Absolutely.

NORVILLE:  Alanna Nash, thank you very much.

NASH:  Thank you.

NORVILLE:  Later on, we‘ll be joined by Ron Reagan.  He‘ll talk about the topic of stem cell research.  And coming up next, a man who first inspired Christopher Reeve, and was later inspired himself by the actor to keep fighting in the face of physical adversity.  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Christopher Reeve inspired countless people, both able-boded and not, to keep fighting in the face of adversity.  My next guest wants to keep the momentum going.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REEVE:  Something bad happens to all of us at some point in our lives. 

Then you figure out, OK, what does it teach me?  Where do I go from here?  And we all find, we‘ve got resources inside us we don‘t know about.  And you‘ve just got to be willing to tap in and go for it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Tap in and go for it.  The name Christopher Reeve means for many people just one word—inspiration.  The actor made it his mission to help others as he battled the spinal injury that had paralyzed him.  And one person who won‘t forget his bravery is Marc Buoniconti.  He met Reeve as part of his own work to raise funds and awareness of spinal injuries.

Marc is the son of Nick Buoniconti, the Hall of Fame linebacker of the NFL.  He was a sophomore middle backer at the Citadel when he suffered a spinal injury during a game back in 1985 that left him quadriplegic.  Marc Buoniconti, co-founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis joins me from Miami.

Nice to see you, Marc.  Thanks for being on.

MARC BUONICONTI, PARALYZED IN 1985:  Hi, Deborah.  My pleasure.

NORVILLE:  I know you knew Chris fairly well.  How did the two of you meet?

BUONICONTI:  The first time I met Chris actually was just a couple months after his injury.  I had the opportunity to go and see him at the Kessler Rehab Center early on.  And we just really became close at that point.  Initially talking about spinal cord injury, I wanted to share with him the state of research at the time, and talk about the Miami Project and what‘s going on, what was going on with spinal cord injury research.

And in particular, something that I really admired Christopher a lot about was how he lived his life on a ventilator.  I spend nearly a year on a respirator, and we were really sharing stories about living life on a respirator, and really the transition from an able-bodied person to somebody who has to live a life in a wheelchair.

NORVILLE:  And yet, when you met him, you already saw that charismatic side that was going to follow in your own footsteps in working to raise awareness and research funds for paralysis cures.

BUONICONTI:  Absolutely.  We really wanted to team up and head on paralysis together.  He has always been charismatic.  You can see his energy, his glow.  You know, it was a tragedy that it happened to him, but he really took it head on.  And by his example, he really showed the whole spinal cord injury community as well as myself, that just because you‘re in a wheelchair doesn‘t mean you can‘t do great things.

And he did great things.  He lobbied Congress to do a lot of great things there.  Raised a lot of awareness, and specifically a lot of funds for spinal cord injury research.

NORVILLE:  I know we saw some footage just a second ago of you and he entering the facility down there in Miami, to which I know he gave a very significant amount of money, that actually has funded research that‘s done something incredible.  You‘ve gotten paralyzed mice back to 80 percent mobility?

BUONICONTI:  That‘s correct.  In the year 2000 is when we opened the doors of the Lois Pope Life Center, which is the home of the Miami Project.  And since then, that specific area of research was partially funded by the Christopher Reeve Foundation.  And through a cellular transplant, we were able to restore function in a paralyzed rat to nearly 80 percent.  And that was the largest regeneration ever seen in the area of spinal cord research.

And because of his support, and so many other supporters, we‘re going to take that research and hopefully in the not too distant future, apply that to humans.  And that‘s what we‘re working on.

NORVILLE:  You know how controversial stem cell research has been in this area.  Was this particular development linked to stem cell research, or is this independent of it?

BUONICONTI:  No.  This was a separate study.  But the Miami Project does have a steam that specifically studies stem cells.  And it‘s really important that we really work with the Congress to keep the unregulated research of stem cells the best we can.  Because that‘s really one piece of the puzzle in the area of spinal cord research.  If we can combine stem cell research with the rest of the research that‘s going on, we can certainly come that much closer to finding a cure.

NORVILLE:  We know there‘s so many pieces, this is like a 1,000-part puzzle that you all are working with.  And yet we also saw the prediction that people with the kind of injury that Chris Reeve had, having a seven-year life span, Dr. Wise Young earlier was saying that that was very alarming for a lot of people who, like yourself, are living life in a wheelchair.  What words of encouragement can you offer to them about your own experience?

BUONICONTI:  Well, I‘ve just been able to really rely on the Miami Project, and the great facilities we have there, and the support of my family.  I have the ability to work out three times a week, improve my quality of life, because that‘s really what it‘s all about.  Even though we‘re working hard to find a cure, you have to really take care of yourself, and be in the best shape possible to take advantage of a cure when it comes.

So that‘s really what the Miami Project is all about.  And my message to the spinal cord injured community is do the best you can.  Live life to the fullest.  And just keep your eye on the research, because we‘re getting close every day.

NORVILLE:  We only have about 15 seconds.  But Marc, do you think knowing what you know about research, that the possibility is there that you might walk again?

BUONICONTI:  I really believe so.  I really believe that I‘ll get out of this wheelchair.  I might not run like I did before, but I will get on my feet.  I‘ll become more independent, and improve my quality of life.  And that‘s all we can ask for.  That‘s the best thing we can do.

NORVILLE:  Well, we‘re all hoping and praying that that happens for you and everybody else in the same boat.  Marc Buoniconti, thank you so much.  Best to your dad too.  OK?

BUONICONTI:  My pleasure.  Thank you, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  All right.  We‘ll be right back. 

ANNOUNCER:  Up next...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

REEVE:  One hundred million Americans stand to benefit from all kinds of stem cell research.

ANNOUNCER:  It‘s one of the most heated issues in this year‘s presidential race.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Stem cell research, can it offer break-through cures or just false hope?  Ron Reagan weighs in when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  He was an inspiration to all of us.  Without leaving his wheelchair, he was able to make great strides towards a cure for conditions like his.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That was John Kerry talking about Christopher Reeve from the campaign trail.  President Bush issued a statement today calling Reeve an example of personal courage, optimism, and self-determination. 

But Christopher Reeve did not shy away from controversy.  Especially with his support of stem cell research.  An issue that has become highly political.  We‘re joined now by MSNBC Political Analyst Ron Reagan, another outspoken advocate of the cause.  You‘ll recall he made a speech at the Democratic National Convention, calling for more funding of stem cell research.

Ron, thanks for being with us tonight.  Did you know Chris Reeve?

REAGAN:  Good to be with you.

NORVILLE:  Thanks.

REAGAN:  I was an acquaintance of Christopher Reeve.  Let me just say to his wife Dana, and to all his friends and loved ones, my sympathy is with you, as I‘m sure all of ours is.

NORVILLE:  As you know from personal experience, when someone so high profile who is attached to an issue passes away, it puts the spotlight on that issue.  How do you think Christopher Reeve would want his passing to be viewed vis-a-vis stem cell research?

REAGAN:  Well, it‘s a reminder of what‘s at stake here.  People like Chris Reeve with spinal cord injuries; other people like Michael J. Fox with Parkinson‘s disease, children with diabetes, et cetera, et cetera.  These are people at risk.  These are people whose lives are in danger and we now have the possibility of doing something about that.

If the federal government can get behind embryonic stem cell research, perhaps in as little as five years we could have cures for things like Parkinson‘s disease, or perhaps spinal cord injuries.

NORVILLE:  Perhaps is the word I guess that you have to underscore and put in all caps.  Because we just don‘t know.  What is it about stem cell research thus far that leads you and other advocates to believe that there‘s the possibility for some real breakthroughs with some of these diseases?

REAGAN:  Well, we‘re in early days here as far as research goes.  But the research that has been done on mice, let‘s say, and not human beings obviously at this point, has been tremendously promising.  More promising for embryonic stem cell research than for adult stem cell research.  Although, there is great promise there too.

NORVILLE:  And when you look at some of the diseases that are out there, where do you see from the contact you have with the research people, which diseases look like the ones to be most likely to benefit earliest on if indeed stem cell research, whether it‘s adult or embryonic proves to have the right stuff?

REAGAN:  Well, I asked a Harvard biologist that a couple of months ago.  And he seemed to think that within about five years, we could have a cure to Parkinson‘s.  But the key there is federal funding.  We really need to start driving this thing forward and stop fussing around politically with this issue.  You know, the Bush administration‘s position on this is frankly morally and intellectually incoherent.  And they need to—

NORVILLE:  I‘m talking about the federal funding thing.  Because frankly, Ron, I have a friend who has multiple melanoma, an incurable form of blood cancer.  The government wasn‘t doing anything.  She and her sister started a foundation.  In eight years, they raised $38 million.  There is four drugs in use right now, 20 clinical trials going on.

And they didn‘t use a nickel of government money.  Why wait for the government?  Why not go on and do it privately?

REAGAN:  Nobody is waiting for the government actually.  There are many private firms doing this, it‘s being done in Europe.  But federal funding drives private research.  Big pharmaceutical companies, for instance, they only look a couple, maybe three years down the line.  Because they‘re interested in profitability, let‘s face it.

So the federal government getting involved, providing money encourages more private funding and tells the pharmaceutical companies this is going to happen.  This is coming.  We can start investing in it now.  Again, the Bush administration‘s position at this point is moral incomprehensibility.

NORVILLE:  You know, when people like you, people like Christopher Reeve, and people like your mother come forward and speak, the emotion that your presence brings to an issue is beyond calculation.  And I want to just play when your mother spoke publicly about this just a few weeks before your father‘s passing.

REAGAN:  Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY:  And now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp.  I just don‘t see how we can turn our backs on this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  When your mother speaks from the heart like that, when you spoke at the Democratic Convention, what kind of reaction did you see in terms of more funding being given to those projects that are in operation, more political pressure being put on the Republican administration?

REAGAN:  A great deal of political pressure.  There are a lot of Republicans, maybe even a majority of Republicans who really would like to see more federal funding for research.  Yes, there have to be safeguards to guard against cloning and things like that.  But that‘s really not a serious threat. 

There are people at risk.  There are children in trouble.  Of course we get emotional about this sort of thing.  And we get emotional in another way when we see a United States government dithering and playing politics with the issue.  It‘s simply not right.

NORVILLE:  And it has crossed political lines.  There are over 200 Congress members, over 50 members of the Senate who have signed a letter asking the president to reverse his stand on federal funding.

REAGAN:  Seventy-five percent of the public backs embryonic stem cell research.  But there‘s that key 25 percent that just happens to be this president‘s base, as they call it, that doesn‘t.  And that‘s the—that‘s the calculation he‘s made.  I can‘t fully support embryonic stem cell research because I may lose my base.  They may not show up at the polls to vote for me.  That‘s tragic.

NORVILLE:  Do you think there‘s any way to take this one issue out of the political realm, and put it in the human realm, and get politics out of the equation?

REAGAN:  Well, not unless this administration chooses to do so.  It has no business being in the political realm.  This is not a political question, properly speaking.  It is a biological, medical, moral, if you will, one.  But it has no place in the political realm.  But this administration put it squarely in the political realm by the way they chose to deal with it.

NORVILLE:  It‘s certainly one of the most contentious issues to come out of the lab.  Ron Reagan thanks for being with us.

REAGAN:  You bet.  I‘m sorry the circumstances weren‘t happier.

NORVILLE:  Indeed.  When we come back, will Chris Reeve‘s death make stem cell research a bigger factor in the campaign?  You just heard one opinion.  We‘ll hear yours next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  With the death of Christopher Reeve, and the hot controversy over stem cell research, we have been asking you throughout the day here on MSNBC, do you think Christopher Reeve‘s death will make stem cell research a bigger factor in the campaign?  Checking our web site at the moment, with more than 150,000 votes already in, 60 percent say stem cell research will become a bigger issue in the campaign, 40 percent say it will not.

You still have a chance to vote on the question of the day.  Just log on to question.msnbc.com.  Of course, you can send us your ideas and comments to us.  That address is norville@msnbc.com.  And that is our program for this evening.  I‘m Deborah Norville.  Thanks so much for watching.

Coming up tomorrow night, HARDBALL ramping up for the third and final presidential debate.  So in this time slot, Chris Matthews and his panel will be here tomorrow night.  Coming up next, Joe Scarborough takes you into SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  Thanks for watching.  We‘ll see you soon. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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