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Christopher Reeve's Legacy of Research

Actor and quadriplegic Christopher Reeve inspired people to work harder to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.
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WebMD Feature

Oct. 11, 2004 -- He became the public face of people living with paralysis, working tirelessly to promote research into spinal cord injury while waging his own tireless battle to walk again. Christopher Reeve had been confined to a wheelchair for just under 10 years when he died this week, but experts say his impact will be felt for decades to come.

"Christopher Reeve will be remembered as someone who changed the world's perception about spinal cord injury," says Marc Buoniconti of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, who is also paralyzed.

His longtime doctor, John W. McDonald, MD, says Christopher Reeve continued to recover motor function up until his death. The two made headlines two years ago on the eve of the actor and paralysis advocate's 50th birthday by announcing he had regained some feeling and could move isolated parts of his body.

"A big part of Chris' legacy is the demonstration that recovery of function is possible long after injury," McDonald tells WebMD. "And there is a lot of hope for a cure out there, which certainly was not the case 10 years ago."

Complications After Paralysis Are Common

Christopher Reeve developed heart problems at his home in New York on Saturday and died on Sunday at a nearby hospital. He was surrounded by his family, according to news reports.

He spent the years following the 1995 horseback riding accident that left him a quadriplegic helping to focus the public's attention on a cure for spinal cord injury. But Christopher Reeve's death also focuses the spotlight on the day-to-day problems of people living with paralysis, says National Spinal Cord Injury Association Executive Director Marcie Roth.

"Unfortunately, the issue of secondary complications cannot be overlooked or underestimated," she tells WebMD. "While the general population thinks that walking again is the primary concern of people with spinal cord injuries, the reality is that they face potentially life-threatening complications from a variety of causes."

Spinal cord injuries eventually affect virtually every organ of the body and lead to what is known as "accelerated aging," says spinal injury expert Suzanne Groah, MD. Life spans for paralyzed people tend to decline depending on their level of injury. Groah says a 40-year-old who is paralyzed from the chest down typically dies a decade earlier than a non-injured person, and people injured as seriously as Christopher Reeve typically live only a few years.

Fatal blood clots are a big concern in the months following a spinal cord injury because of the patient's immobility, but life-threatening infections are a lasting danger. Having a spinal cord injury also increases the risk of developing chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers, Groah says.

"Now that we are getting closer to a cure it is really essential that we focus more attention on the health and functioning of people with these injuries," she tells WebMD. "If we find a cure in five years or 10, I don't think it will help as many people as it could unless we focus on these issues now."

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