The spark of a movement

Christopher and Dana Reeve

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation's roots stretch back to 1982 when Henry Stifel, a New Jersey high school student, was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed at the age of 17.

What started as the community-driven Stifel Paralysis Research Foundation soon became the American Paralysis Association (APA) after the organizations joined forces around a singular mission: to challenge the notion that the spinal cord, once injured, could never recover or be repaired.

The founders of the APA had an unwavering belief that researchers and neuroscientists, working together, would find a way to connect and regenerate the damaged nerves and cells that result in paralysis.

In 1995, when Christopher Reeve was injured, the APA was one of the first places that he and Dana turned to. As Christopher said, "I have always been a crusader for causes I believe in. This time, the cause found me." By 1999, the APA and Christopher's foundation came together as the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which added Dana's name to its moniker after her untimely death in March 2006.

The Man of Steel

Christopher Reeve was born on September 25, 1952 in New York City. In 1955, he and his family moved to Princeton, New Jersey where he spent a contented childhood. Christopher matriculated to Cornell University, then on to Julliard Drama School.

Christopher’s gift of drama landed him numerous roles in theater, television and the silver screen. While the world knew him for his incredible role as Superman, those who knew him personally remember him to be so much more than just an exquisite actor.

Christopher Reeve was an extraordinary father, a loving husband, a human rights advocate, an avid adventurer, an environmentalist, an author, a director, and an accomplished pianist. He was also a pilot who had made two solo trips across the Atlantic, a outdoor enthusiast who skied, sailed, scuba dived, played tennis, and canoed alone into the wilderness.

In 1985, at the age of 33, Christopher began horseback riding and by 1989 was competing in events, which included cross-country jumping.

May 27, 1995

Events that occur in a fraction of a second often seem to those who experience them as if they unfold in slow-motion. It was in just such a flashing moment that a robust and athletic Christopher Reeve was paralyzed from a spinal cord injury so severe, that his first lucid thought was that it might be better for everyone if he were to die.

When Dana whispered those life-saving words to me, ‘You’re still you. And I love you,’ it meant more to me than just a personal declaration of faith and commitment. In a sense it was an affirmation that marriage and family stood at the center of everything, and if both were intact, so was your universe.

- Christopher Reeve

With those words, Christopher chose to live. After months of grueling rehabilitation and therapy, Christopher returned home to find himself surrounded by a life so familiar yet completely new.

"I began to face my new life. On Thanksgiving in 1995, I went home to spend the day with my family. In the driveway, when I saw our home again, I wept. Dana held me. At the dinner table, when each of us in turn spoke a few words about what we were thankful for, a 3-year-old Will said, 'Dad.'"

A new purpose

Christopher Reeve’s generosity in spirit was infinite and resonated through all those he touched. He conveyed his valiancy to all of us, through his passion for his work and how he chose to live his life. No one expected him to become the poster-child for spinal cord injury, but he knew that he could make a tremendous difference for the greater good.

"I felt I needed to do something – not just for myself but for everyone else in the same condition. Even if I had wanted to (which I didn’t), I would never be able to forget the other patients I had met during rehab. I had seen too much of their struggles and pain. I couldn’t go home, devote my life to myself and my family, and ignore the larger picture."

Soon after returning home, he delved into ways he could use his name, his celebrity and his voice to urge the scientific world to work faster and harder; to help the patient community be heard and improve their quality of life; and to impact legislators to increase federal funding for spinal cord injury research.

Research and quality of life

Christopher defied conventional wisdom. As a result of his courage, determination, international renown, and his conviction that ‘nothing is impossible,’ Christopher initiated a sea change.

Through his leadership, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation was born and grew exponentially, reshaping the world of spinal repair research. Under his guidance, the Reeve Foundation’s research programs have tripled and spans from very basic science (molecular and cellular research) to clinical application (testing and delivering promising therapies to patients). Research dollars can hardly keep up with the momentum that he has ignited.

Christopher fought to increase research funding and attention at a federal level by appearing in front of Congress as a patient advocate. And while ardent research continued, Dana Reeve established the Quality of Life Grants program to aid organizations working to enhance the quality of life for those living through the day-to-day challenges of disability.

In order to address individual quality of life needs, Christopher and Dana co-founded the Paralysis Resource Center (PRC). A first of its kind, the PRC provides information to people around the world desperate to learn about paralysis, such as updates on leading research efforts, sources for equipment and support groups, answers for a myriad inquiries on insurance and governmental bureaucracies.

Never had there been a team like Christopher and Dana Reeve – so revered and loved for their partnership, both professionally and personally.

A legacy fit for a superhero

Christopher’s legacy through the Reeve Foundation is strong and enduring. It is humbling to comprehend how one man, who for the last decade of his life was a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, could change the world. And for that, we were and still are in awe of his heroism.

"When the first Superman movie came out, I gave dozens of interviews to promote it. The most frequent question was: What is a hero? My answer was that a hero is someone who commits a courageous action without considering the consequences. Now my definition is completely different. I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. They are the real heroes, and so are the families and friends who have stood by them."

Christopher Reeve passed away on October 10, 2004. At only 52 years old, it was far too soon. The world mourned his death, and we all reflected on the memories he left behind for each of us.

Every October, as we approach the anniversary of his passing, we all agree: no one epitomized a true hero better than Christopher Reeve. Never before has there been so much hope and optimism that cures and treatments for spinal cord injury will be found.

Christopher realized momentum was on our side and the validation of his legacy is that we continue his journey on behalf of millions of people worldwide living with paralysis. It is our privilege to share his legacy, and in his memory, we band together to Go Forward.