October 12 - October 18, 1995

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


LOST IN THE flood of verbiage that attended the finale of the O.J. Simpson trial was a rare few minutes of video from an unexpected quarter. ABC's 20/20 magazine of the air--and air is what most often comprises this pseudo-journalistic offering--presented an affecting profile of Christopher Reeve as he faces life on life-support.

In case you missed it: Reeve broke his neck in an equestrian accident last June, and wound up a high-quad. That's gimp jargon for a spinal cord injury in the region of the second or third cervical vertebra. What it means is that Reeve, who won his present fame playing Superman in the movies, cannot move a muscle below his neck, and at present cannot even breathe on his own. His wheelchair carries a ventilator that supports his respiration. The chair itself is maneuvered by Reeve's mechanically assisted breath: a soft puff of CO2 turns the chair left; a stronger puff pulls right.

Of course if Reeve's ventilator tube comes unstuck, he can't turn left or right, but then it wouldn't matter because he'd suffocate and die within minutes. Fun thought, huh?

Reeve said it wasn't, really. In fact the first couple of times it happened in the hospital he panicked and burnt up a lot of oxygen needlessly. The alarm wired to the machine summoned the nurses in time to save him, and since then, Reeve has learned to remain calm and wait without hyperventilating. How'd you like to try that one yourself?

I know I wouldn't, and I'm a gimp of 14 years' experience, schooled in the hard knocks of the school of hard knocks. But not as hard a knock as Christopher Reeve took when his horse ass-holed and played crack-the-whip with him. (For those of you uninitiated in the linguistic arcana of the western horseman, to ass-hole is--for a horse and rider--to take a head-first tumble, describing a 180-degree somersault. The first and most conspicuous facet of both equine and homo erectus to present itself in an other-than-usual posture is the nether region: hence the term.)

Anyway, when the horse's ass took the great circle route over its own north pole, Reeve's hand got tangled in the headstall and he was literally whipped head-first into the turf, with nothing to break the fall. He lay there helpless and unable to breathe, and would have died, were it not for a doctor who witnessed the fall and gave expert first-aid.

But it's been the second- and third-aid that has made the big difference to Christopher Reeve, and for the man he shapes up to be from here on out.

Which is quite some Superman.

There are, after all, gimps and gimps. As in, there are gimps, and then there are gimps. I belong to the former category; Reeve to the latter. I got off light, paralyzing myself from the chest down, but leaving lots of systems fully functional, or almost. Reeve got as gimped as it gets--just one vertebra this side of what results from a proper hanging. The hangman's noose, properly tied and tested, simply turns its occupant into a C1 quadriplegic. It severs neurological connection to the body, including the respiratory system--like in Reeve's case--but also the heart.

That's all Reeve has left to lift him above a lynching victim, but heart is something this man has in abundance. I hope it continues to serve him as well for the next 40 years as it has the past four months. I don't know which is harder: the initial shock of realizing how savagely your life has been rearranged, or the long-haul of coping with limitations. Support systems, particularly in the form of significant others, family and friends, tend to huddle around in the trauma of recent injury, but run out of stamina as it becomes more apparent this is a long-term proposition.

For now, Christopher Reeve appears to be wonderfully supported by his wife, Dana, and his kids. I hope this lasts, as I hope his own strength holds and grows.

It shows every sign that it will, and this encourages me, because we gimps need new recruits like Superman. He's attractive, articulate and energetically committed to trying to raise public awareness and political clout to apply to the problems of the quarter-million Americans with spinal cord injuries. Where perhaps he can serve best is in speaking the truth about the condition--it's not about walking again someday, it's about living today and every day--and putting ridiculous stereotypes to rest.

Rock Hudson died of AIDS, but before he did, even though he hid his illness in shame for too long, his fame shed light into hitherto darkened closets of ignorance. Christopher Reeve isn't trying to hide, he's going public and promising a good fight. But don't misapprehend the battle facing him. His own struggle to stay alive and sane and happy in an immobile body is purely his own. His battle to help those who will follow him into the fraternity of the "physically challenged" must overcome a social stigma that while not as virulent as AIDS phobia, is stronger for its subtle, silent nature.

Glad to have you aboard, Chris: and sorry we had to get acquainted under these circumstances.

Oh, and Baba: nice piece of work. I particularly liked the part where you didn't ask Reeve what kind of tree he'd like to be.

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October 12 - October 18, 1995

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