Christopher Reeve's son Matthew opens up on how their family's foundation has helped many paralysed patients walk
Jered Chinnock from Wisconsin, who was previously paralyzed, recently walked again after receiving a pioneering treatment supported by the foundation of the late Superman actor
Five years after being paralyzed from the waist down in a snowmobile accident, 29-year-old Jered Chinnock took his first steps just a few weeks ago. The young American, who was told he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, stunned onlookers after walking more than 100 meters with the aid of a wheeled walking frame. The pioneering treatment which bore fruits for Jered is called epidural stimulation, which involves electrodes surgically attached to the lower part of the spinal cord in order to "reconnect" nerve cells.
That said, Matthew Reeve, the eldest son of late actor Christopher Reeve, took particular interest in the news after his own father was left paralyzed from the neck down in a horse-riding accident in 1995 and later died from sepsis at the age of 42 following an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, Daily Mail reports.
According to Matthew, his father would have been "ecstatic" about the latest breakthrough in the treatment. "When he was injured, he was told: 'This is your wheelchair. Get used to it. You will not recover any mobility'. Nobody who is injured today should be told that because it’s not true. Back then, a cure for spinal injury wasn’t thought to be a possibility but my father had great hope and worked relentlessly to raise money for research. He had such belief and would say: 'We want to find a cure: let’s get it done'," says Matthew, emphatically.
After the fateful accident, the erstwhile Hollywood star created the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which is solely dedicated to improving the quality of paralyzed individuals and funding research into curing spinal cord injuries. Moreover, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where Jered received his treatment, is one of three centers part-funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to conduct research on spinal cord injuries and further develop revolutionary treatments such as epidural stimulation.
"A couple of years ago we made an announcement about our first four guys who were able to stand up," says 38-year-old Matthew, a screenwriter and the vice-chairman of the Foundation. "This year, other patients of ours have been able to take steps, which is a truly remarkable watershed moment. It’s difficult for me not to get emotional when I see or hear about patients standing up out of their wheelchairs and taking steps. One of the earliest guys to receive epidural stimulation stood up to get married."
In an exclusive conversation with Daily Mail, Matthew added: "I believe it is only a matter of years before innovative, technology-based therapies like epidural stimulation will become standard practice in the treatment and recovery from spinal cord injuries — and that patients like my father will walk again."
At the time of his father's accident, Matthew was just 15 and living with mother Gae Exton, who was Christopher's former long-term partner. "We knew his life was in the balance and flew over immediately," Matthew recalls. "His level of injury was one of the most severe, at C1 and C2, the highest two vertebrae in the neck. He was a quadriplegic, had to be ventilated and needed 24-hour care."
Reeves, who famously played "Superman" in its 1978 adaptation, also endured multiple life-threatening health problems after the accident. "One drug sent him into anaphylactic shock. He flatlined three or four times," says Matthew. Besides, he also had episodes of autonomic dysreflexia, in which some stimulus below the waist, or even tight clothing, can make the autonomic nervous system hyperactive and cause blood pressure to shoot up.
"My father had a brief moment of depression at first, taking it hard because he was such an active guy," recalls Matthew. "Yet he chose to embrace what had happened, to put a face to a whole field of research and a community that didn’t really have a public voice, bringing awareness to the daily struggles they endure. If he was feeling down, he got through it as quickly as possible. He wanted to continue to be there as a husband and father. My youngest brother Will was three at the time of the accident and Dad taught him to ride a bike just by giving him instructions."
According to Matthew, his father "kept himself very well informed about the research — we would hear about it over dinner or in the sitting room. It would have surprised him that technology is playing such a pivotal role in spinal cord injury research — back then it was presumed that any solution would be biochemical. My father talked a lot about stem cells." He hoped that stem cells may one day help repair spinal injuries.
Over the years, the foundation has invested nearly £110 million (about $142.4 million) in research with epidural stimulation being the chief focus. Matthew explains: "For now we will continue to fund electrical stimulation, as the results are truly astonishing and leading to a lot of thinking about how the spinal cord works."
He also said that physical activity was essential for recuperating in those with spinal injuries. "He wanted to have his body ready for when a cure came along," says Matthew. "He had a fixed bike and three times a week he would get on that. He had a physical therapist and a nurse would apply electrodes to his leg muscles so he could cycle."
Now, fourteen years after Christopher's death, he still remains an inspiration in Matthew's life. "It’s an honor to continue the work my father began," he says. "He was allergic to horses but, playing Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina in 1985, he felt a professional responsibility to learn to ride. He never regretted it. He remained a magnetic, larger-than-life figure. He was charming and funny and socially active. He also never took a day off fighting for more research dollars. People said he really was Superman but he emphasized that the ability to endure, the power to love, everyone has that."