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A Different Kind Of Superhero — Christopher Reeve

It was a hot, muggy morning. Christopher was not sure he really wanted to be out riding in a competition. His thoroughbred horse, Eastern Express, seemed a bit off, as if maybe he would rather be grazing in the field than doing the demanding work of running and jumping with a big, muscular man on his back. Maybe, Christopher thought, it would be nicer to take the kids sailing today, where there would be a cool breeze. "Well," he thought, "I'm a lucky man to be able to choose between riding and sailing."

In fact, plenty of people watching Christopher that day thought the same thing. He was many people's idea of a superhero. He was the actor who played Superman in the movies and, in real life, he fit the part: handsome, strong, always striving toward a goal, chasing his best time, or learning a new skill.

And then, in an instant, everything changed. Eastern Express balked at a jump, sending Christopher crashing to the ground. When he woke up in the hospital, Christopher couldn't move his hands or feet. He couldn't even breathe without the help of a machine. Although doctors could repair his neck, they could not fix the injury to his spinal cord. Now Christopher's brain was unable to communicate with most of his body. Even though he still had all his strength, intelligence, and will power, there was simply no way for him to move any part of his body below his head.

Despair washed over Christopher. If he could not do anything, could not be useful to anyone, why not put him out of his misery, like they did with horses that were injured too badly to walk again? "Maybe," he said to his wife, Dana, "we should just let me go."

But Dana spoke words that helped start him on the road toward his new life: "But you're still you. And I love you."

Of course, Christopher Reeve had never actually been able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he had been a tremendous athlete. He had always liked a goal, a challenge, something to work for. Before his accident, Christopher's challenges involved acting, directing, and sports. Now his challenges were different. Now it took all his strength and determination to sit up in a wheelchair and steer it by puffing on a straw.

His heart ached with all he had lost. He might never again be able to hug his wife and sons, or ride a horse or sail. But he realized he still had a lot — the love of his family, and money and fame from his career. Christopher decided to use everything he still had to work for a new goal.

As always, Christopher Reeve dreamed big. He hoped there might be a cure for spinal cord injuries, not just for himself, but also for many thousands of others whose lives had changed when their backs or necks were broken. He and his wife set up the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. They asked people for money to help pay scientists to research a cure. Then, Dana realized how lucky they were to be able to afford a ramp into their home and a big van that could fit Christopher's wheelchair. They collected money to help pay for ramps and other helpful things, so more people with spinal cord injuries could also have them.

Christopher realized that, even though he could no longer use his arms and legs, he had a power that many people do not. He was famous. People thought of him as Superman. Now he could really be a hero, not by flying through the air to rescue people, but by speaking up. Because he was famous, people would pay attention. They would listen, and they would want to help.

It wasn't easy. Christopher didn't want people to feel sorry for him. He didn't want to be embarrassed if he could not use his mouth to speak well, or if his body, as sometimes happened, jerked around without his control. But he knew this was a special chance to use the power he had and make the world a better place. So Christopher started speaking. He asked Congress to support stem cell research that might lead to a cure for spinal cord injuries. He asked groups of people to get involved and donate money. He talked with others who had experienced injuries like his. He even spoke, on television, to millions of people during the Academy Awards, showing everyone that, although his abilities had changed, his heart and his soul were strong and capable.

A writer for Reader's Digest magazine interviewed Christopher Reeve near the end of his life, in 2004, and asked him why he had joined a Unitarian church. He answered, "It gives me a moral compass. I often refer to Abe Lincoln, who said, 'When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion.' I think we all have a little voice inside us that will guide us. It may be God, I don't know. But I think that if we shut out all the noise and clutter from our lives and listen to that voice, it will tell us the right thing to do."

Christopher Reeve showed what a real-life hero is: a person who listens to the voice inside them, and acts when that voice tells them the right thing to do.

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Last updated on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

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