updated 10/12/2004 1:58:33 PM ET 2004-10-12T17:58:33

Actor Christopher Reeve is being remembered 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.

Dr. Wise Young was 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. Below is an excerpt of Deborah Norville's interview with him on how he remembers his patient:

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST: Dr. Young, 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 “Will there be therapies that will restore function to people with spinal cord injury?” 

And I said yes, and explained why. 

Then he said, “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?

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, 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.

Video: Spinal cord future

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 amongst the families in the communities.  And I've been trying to reassure them that  people can and will live long lives if they take good care of their bodies.

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 is he raised probably more money privately than anybody else that I know for spinal cord injury in the last 10 years. 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 wasn't there in 1995.  And since his time, it really came.  We felt that we had to do this quickly for Christopher.

NORVILLE: 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.


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