Reeve, remembered: <I>Super</I> man left mark on Charlottesville

For nearly a decade, the world watched Superman actor Christopher Reeve tirelessly crusade for spinal cord and stem cell research from his motorized wheelchair. His death on Sunday, October 10, from complications of an infected bedsore came as a shocking blow to millions.

But the fact that Reeve lived for nine years after fracturing his neck between the top two vertebrae is shocking in its own right, says John Jane, the UVA neurosurgeon who performed a six-hour surgery to fuse Reeve's spine.

It's "exceptional" to survive such an injury, Jane says. Most people similarly injured quickly suffocate or suffer permanent brain damage because the injury compromises their ability to breathe.

"The only reason he lived," Jane explains, "was somebody at the scene of the accident gave him mouth to mouth."

There were plenty of bystanders ready to offer aid on May 27, 1995, as the then-42-year-old actor, competing in a Saturday riding event at Commonwealth Park in Culpeper, approached the third jump on the course. His horse balked, according to an Associated Press report at the time, throwing Reeve forward. In October 1995 Reeve recalled the accident for Barbara Walters on 20/20.

"I had the misfortune to get my hand stuck in the horse's bridle," he explained. "So it's like going over with your hands tied, and that's why I landed straight on my head."

His life changed in that instant, and life at UVA hospital was about to change as well– at least temporarily.

As the Pegasus air ambulance flew the injured actor from Culpeper, UVA medical staff prepared to receive the star patient, an unusual occurrence for the hospital, one of five Level 1 trauma centers in the state.

In fact, it had been two decades since UVA hospital handled such a high profile case. In April 1972, Lyndon Johnson suffered a heart attack at the home of his daughter Lynda Bird Robb in Farmington, and had spent four and a half days at the hospital. He died nine and a half months later of heart failure, just two days after Richard Nixon's inauguration.

While hospital personnel were equipped to deal with the severity of Reeve's injury, they were less prepared for complications from a different source: the international press. After British tabloids broke the story of Reeve's injury within a day of the event, reporters from around the globe descended on Charlottesville. So great was the world's interest that UVA set up a telephone hotline with regularly updated information on the actor's condition.

Visiting family members– including Reeve's wife, Dana, the couple's then-three-year-old son, Will, Reeve's two older children, and his older near-lookalike brother Benjamin– were hounded by the press. Also, according to reports at the time, Reeve's acting colleague and former Juilliard roommate Robin Williams had to be smuggled past the press for a visit.

The media fascination was perhaps summed up by New York Post reporter Lisa Massarella's comment to Hawes Spencer, now editor of the Hook: "Superman," she explained, "can no longer fly."

But though initially there was a media circus, Jane says the atmosphere quickly cooled off.

"I gave a limited number of press conferences," he recalls. "It was very reasonable." And after the initial interest, Jane says, "The media was very responsible."

Following one final press conference by Reeve's family, who thanked doctors, nurses, and even local restaurants for their kindness during their Charlottesville stay, Reeve quietly left UVA hospital on June 28 and was moved to a New Jersey rehab facility. But although his role as celebrity doctor was done, Jane says his relationship with Reeve– "an exceedingly brave, courageous human being whom I admired greatly"– continued.

Reeve, who underwent intensive physical therapy so that he could breathe for extended periods without a ventilator, also regained some sensation in his body and eventually was able to lift one of his fingers. Jane says he examined the actor after these achievements.

But Jane's last visit with the actor was a social one, at Reeve's 50th birthday party in 2002.

"He was optimistic, in good cheer," Jane recalls, despite the actor's failure to meet a self-imposed goal of walking by that milestone birthday.

That optimism was well known. His 1998 best-selling autobiography, Still Me, showed that despite his hardships, Reeve remained hopeful. But when a 2000 television advertisement for Nuveen Investments showed a computer-enhanced Reeve walking at an imaginary awards ceremony, he came under some criticism for allegedly offering false expectations to similarly afflicted people.

"Most scientists agree," Reeve insisted in a statement released through Nuveen, "that with enough money and talent focused on spinal cord repair, the goal of walking within the foreseeable future is a very real possibility."

So would he have walked again had he lived?

"It's hard to say," says Jane. But the doctor believes Reeve's accomplishments would have multiplied. "He would have seen his dream of getting better and helping many, many other people in terms of getting better– of that, there's no question."

If the dream of a paralysis cure is to become a reality, Jane says it won't result from a sudden discovery.

"It will be incremental increases in recovery," he says. "It's a slow process, requiring extensive animal experimentation. That's the only way it's going to happen."

But even though Reeve won't see his dream realized, Jane says his efforts have not been wasted– nor will they be forgotten.

"I'm absolutely sure that his efforts have pushed research forward," Jane says. "I think he's established something that will go on."

Dr. John Jane operated on Christopher Reeve following the 1995 riding accident.

Christopher Reeve played a superhero before he put heroic effort into the progress of spinal cord and stem cell research.

1995 Flashback:
Hook  cartoonist Don Berard crafted this classic cartoon in the wake of Christopher's Reeve's accident.