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Sunday, 9 February, 2003, 01:55 GMT
Superman's toughest battle
Christopher Reeve
Reeve is making good progress
Actor Christopher Reeve has confounded medical opinion to fight a determined battle against paralysis - and his efforts are beginning to produce results.

Doctors thought it was unlikely that the star of the Superman movies would even survive after he broke his neck in a horse riding accident in May 1995.

Against the odds, he pulled through, but his injury left him paralysed from the neck down, unable to breathe without the use of a ventilator and dependent on 24-hour nursing care.

Christopher and Dana Reeve
His wife Dana has provided loving support
Reeve describes the fact that he survived as a "miracle". However, he also admits that he had to battle thoughts of suicide.

The chances that he would ever recover movement in his legs were tiny.

But with a steely determination and remarkable dedication he has begun to prove this grim prognosis wrong.

A BBC documentary 'Christopher Reeve: Hope in Motion' follows the star's progress as he gradually inches towards his goal of regaining some of the independence he so misses.

Hug

"It is a cruel irony that somebody who loved to be alone now cannot even go out in the driveway by myself," he told the programme.

Scan
Reeve broke a bone in his neck
"He said the most difficult thing to cope with was simply the loss of physical contact with the human race.

"My son Will was almost three when I was hurt, and he has never had a hug from me since - he is almost nine now."

Reeve has worked closely with Dr John McDonald, who runs a leading spinal injuries centre at Washington University, St Louis.

"The problem with Chris is that he has a injury to his spinal cord at a level that affects all the cables coming down from the brain to control the body, and vice versa.

"Most people that have that level of injury do not survive that accident because breathing is affected.

"When I first met Chris five years after his injury he had no movement or sensation below the level of his injury. Previous studies would suggest that person does not stand a chance."

Keeping fit

Christopher Reeve
Dr John McDonald has provided therapy
However, the best thing somebody can do in that position is to try to keep the body's muscles and nerves as fit as possible.

Reeve spent four to five hours every day trying to do this through endless repetitions of basic exercises with his nursing staff.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere and more than five years after the accident, Reeve suddenly found he could wiggle the index finger on his left hand.

Since then he has slowly developed a much larger range of movements and exercises.

"He has already made more progress than I would ever have predicted," said Dr McDonald.

"Pretty much no-one else would probably even believe that he has had this recovery."

Dr McDonald said the goal must be incremental steps towards recovery. The first target must be to remove the need for Reeve to use a ventilator.

But already his progress has been remarkable. During therapy in a swimming pool he was able to kick both legs, despite the fact that he had five pound ankle weights on each leg.

Aqua therapy
Reeve has taken steps in a swimming pool
And finally, after more sessions of aqua therapy, he was able to take his first steps in a swimming pool.

"I willed my quadriceps and hamstrings to step forward, my legs remembered how to walk and I stepped.

"That was an incredible experience for me. The fact that I actually took steps forward, even though I needed a lot of assistance re-affirmed my belief that I will walk again."

Stem cells

Despite the good progress, Reeve is also keen to take advantage of the latest research into the use of stem cells.

These are embryonic cells at an early stage of development that have the potential to become cells in many different types of tissue.

Scientists believe stem cell transplants have the ability to tackle many different types of disease and injury.

Reeve has used his high-profile position to lobby intensively for greater funding for research into this area.

Whatever the future holds, Reeve is determined to keep fighting.

"I decided some time ago, I won't just listen to the rules.

"How many people are walking around who have been told by a doctor 'I'm sorry, you've got six months to live' and they go out and end up running a marathon?"

Christopher Reeve: Hope in Motion is broadcast on BBC One television on Sunday 9 February at 2100 GMT.

See also:

10 Dec 02 | Health
20 Sep 02 | Entertainment
10 Sep 02 | Entertainment
24 Feb 02 | Health
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