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Oct. 12, 2004. 12:00 PM
LAWRENCE JACKSON/AP FILE
Actor Christopher Reeve, 52, died Sunday from complications of a serious infection.
 
Miro Cernetig 
Graham Fraser 
Richard Gwyn 
Stephen Handelman 
Chantal Hebert 
James Travers 
Ian Urquhart 
Thomas Walkom 
Reeve made a lot of people care

BARBARA TURNBULL
STAFF REPORTER

Incalculable.

I think that best describes the impact Christopher Reeve has had on the spinal cord injury community, not just in the U.S., but globally.

As a quadriplegic myself since 1983, I used to say to my friends that we needed a major Hollywood star to break his neck to make the world pay attention. That was before May, 1995, when Reeve's accident made him one of us. I dare say we could not have chosen a better candidate in the actor best known at that time, and for more appropriate reasons since, as Superman.

Reeve, 52, died Sunday of complications from a serious bloodstream infection caused by a bedsore.

"Like night and day," is how Mitchell Stoller describes Reeve's impact.

Stoller was the president of the American Paralysis Association when Reeve's accident occurred. Shortly after, the APA became the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, with Reeve as its chairman. Stoller remained at the helm until recently becoming president of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

"There was such a sea change when Chris got on the scene," Stoller recalled yesterday. "He just made the consciousness of the world aware of spinal cord injury and paralysis and not just those issues, but all of neurological disorders and diseases.

"He changed the awareness so the general public understood better what the problem was. He made a lot of people care."

The importance of that awareness cannot be overstated, because it led to real dollars supporting research.

Who else could throw a party and attract the likes of Barbara Walters, Robin Williams, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones? Reeve's foundation held a fundraiser each November that raised in excess of $2 million (U.S.) every time.

Millions of dollars were generated by him or as a result of the connection people had with his story, Rick Hansen said yesterday. Hansen, a paraplegic, raised awareness of spinal cord injury in Canada, along with $20 million, wheeling around the world in the '80s.

"He was able to galvanize people into this crazy idea that people with spinal cord injury could have the chance to walk again," Hansen said. "Even though the scientists were starting to get used to the idea that it was possible, he accelerated (the) pace and the urgency of it."

I interviewed Reeve at his home north of Manhattan two years ago. His 50th birthday was looming and for years he had stated that he believed he would be standing on that occasion.

Instead, he announced to the world that he had regained some movement and feeling, a feat not to be trivialized.

A few months later, Reeve visited Israel, cementing his global reach and appeal. In person, as on stage and screen, he seemed tireless and unbeatable.

I remember the shock I felt in 1995 when Reeve had his accident. I felt a similar shock yesterday hearing about his death. This time it is matched with a profound sadness and loss as well as immense gratitude. I find myself wondering what this will mean for those of us who now have hope because of him.

Said Dr. Charles Tator of the University Health Network: "It is going to be a blow for research, because he managed to make a lot of people individuals, corporations, government he made them think about the importance of spinal cord injury research.

"He made people feel that they should support his goal of getting neurological recovery, because of the force of his personality."

Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon who has been searching for a cure for several decades, has benefited from Reeve's foundation, most recently with a two-year grant for his lab.

As well, along with colleague Dr. Michael Fehlings at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre, Tator has joined a consortium organized by Reeve's foundation to drive clinical trials forward. Theirs is the only Canadian centre involved.

Reeve was a combination of many admirable features, Tator said.

As a positive thinker, he believed fervently in research possibilities and was determined to do his part, lobbying for support and sharing himself with many causes around the world.

"He's been such a passionate advocate, a positive role model and an inspiration for so many people," Fehlings said.

Reeve surpassed the hopes and expectations that people like myself so quickly attached to him in 1995. I can only echo the hope that the impact of his spirit and passion will continue.

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