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Advocates for Stem Cell Research Will Miss Christopher Reeve's Resolve  - 2004-10-13

The U.S. presidential race has largely focused on the war in Iraq and the domestic economy. But with the death of actor Christopher Reeve on October 10, stem cell research has become a national campaign issue. Mr. Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback riding accident nine years ago, was an advocate for this research. He called newly formed stem cells "the body's self-repair kit," which he believed could be grown as new nerve cells to enable him to walk again. John Kerry mentioned Mr. Reeve in the second presidential debate, and the former actor left the Democratic candidate a long voicemail message on Saturday. Later that night he went into cardiac arrest following an infection. VOA's Ted Landphair looks at Christopher Reeve and his powerful message.

No longer the comic-book "Man of Steel" Superman on screen, Christopher Reeve was a quadraplegic with steely resolve.

"I have good days and bad days - more good days, fortunately," he said. "But the gradual process is of acceptance. On the one hand, you realize: OK, this is me. This is what I am. I am the same person. I have limitations. But I am not going to dwell on the limitations."

Instead, after a period of deep depression and thoughts of suicide, Mr. Reeve focused on the possibilities - for himself and for others facing life strapped in a bed or a wheelchair. He lent his name to a New Jersey research foundation that has raised more than $46 million for neuroscience, searching for a way, after a spinal cord has been severed, that the brain might restore its connections with the body's nervous system.

"I am going to fight for the cure," he said. "I am going to fight for funding. I am going to fight for change. Until about 1993, nobody thought it would ever be possible to cure spinal cord injury. It would be hopeless. So now, it's been proven that it's not hopeless. Five years ago, I would not be sitting here talking to you. Two years ago, I would probably still be in a hospital someplace. This year, we are sitting on the threshold of a cure."

Kept alive by a respirator and later - after electrodes were implanted in his diaphragm - able to breathe on his own for up to 18 hours a day, this once-vigorous athlete, who had performed his own stunts in several films, turned to directing. Rather than retreating from view, he forcefully led the campaign to fund dramatic new therapies.

On NBC television, one of Christopher Reeve's physicians, Dr. Wise Young, noted that the actor would have been sad to miss the November 2 U.S. presidential election.

"He was glued to everything that was happening with the stem cell issues," he said. "He was very interested in the fact that his bill - the Chrisopher Reeve Paralysis Act - is now coming out of committee into Congress again, and this would ask for $300 million for spinal-cord injury research. I think, more than anything else, Christopher taught me the use of two four-letter words: cure and hope." Just last week, addressing an audience in Chicago, Christopher Reeve once again demonstrated that famous resolve.

"Never before have we had the chance to use a biomedical technology to address almost every disease that you could possibly think of - leukemia and cancer, and heart disease and paralysis," he said. "Diabetes, Alzheimer's. Who are we if we don't use our best efforts and best available technology to do something?"

Superhero on the screen, Christopher Reeve was a real-life hero to millions of others living with paralysis. He did not walk again, as he had hoped. But after extensive experimental therapy, he could move the little finger on one hand. "Well," he once told an audience with his trademark broad smile. "It's a start."