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5.30.00

Restoration, Reality and Christopher Reeve
by Charles Krauthammer

"Paralyzed people fooled by a Super Bowl ad showing Christopher Reeve walking have been calling an advocacy group to find out how he was cured." --- Associated Press, Feb. 1, 2000  


I have long been reluctant to criticize Christopher Reeve. It is not easy attacking someone who suffered such a devastating injury and has carried on with spirit. Nor am I particularly keen to violate the Brotherhood of the Extremely Unlucky. (I injured my spinal cord when I was 22 and have been in a wheelchair ever since.)

 But his Super Bowl ad was just too much. Why did he do it? To raise consciousness, he says. Convinced that a cure is imminent, he wants to share the good news with the largest possible audience. For 28 years I've been hearing that a cure is just a few years away. Being a doctor, I have discounted such nonsense. Most of the spinal-cord injured, however, are not doctors.

 These are the facts. Yes, there is research into spinal-cord regeneration and, occasionally, there are some positive results in animal models. But  the research is preliminary, at best suggestive. There remain enormous scientific obstacles even beyond the extremely problematic question of getting the neurons to re-grow. Yes, this research will bear fruit one day. Unhappily, it is overwhelmingly likely that this day lies many years in the future.

 Second, when that time does come, the principal beneficiaries will be the newly injured. People long injured-who have developed scar tissue at the site of the break and whose distal spinal cord (the part below the injury) often turns to mush as the old neurons die-will be the last people to be helped by this research, if they will be helped at all. The " cure" will probably end up like the polio vaccine: preventing paralysis, not abolishing it.

Third, even in the unlikely event there is a cure for those presently paralyzed, it will at best be partial. The idea so dramatized in the Super Bowl commercial-that someone with a completely severed cord will actually walk-is very farfetched.

 Walking is a hugely complex motor and feedback activity. Look at how long it takes babies, who have totally intact nervous systems, to learn it. Look at how, despite decades of research to develop robots that walk, they remain primitive, often comical. Perhaps the long-injured will enjoy some partial return, some movement in the hands or chest or even legs. That would be a considerable boon. But it is far from the fantasy Reeve promotes: walking, i.e., restoration to pre-injury status.

Reeve believes restoration is just around the corner. Fine. I have no quarrel with a man who wants to believe that. If he needs that to get through his day, who am I to disabuse him of his fantasies?

But Reeve insists on parading his fantasies in public with the express purpose of converting others to them. In his public pronouncements and now in his disgracefully misleading Super Bowl ad, he is evangelizing the imminent redemption. He goes so far as to criticize those who believe otherwise.

 "The biggest problem, actually," he told Good Morning America the day after the commercial aired, "is people who have been in a chair for a very long time, because in order to survive psychologically they've had to accept 'O.K., I'm going to spend my life in a chair."'  In Reeve's view, reality is a psychological crutch. His propaganda to that effect undermines those-particularly the young and newly injured-who are  struggling to face reality, master it and make a life for themselves from their wheelchairs.  

Odder still is Reeve's belief that people in wheelchairs don't dream enough about getting out of them. (Hence the $2 million ad.) On the contrary. The problem is that some-again, the newly devastated young especially-dream about it too much.

 When I was injured, I had a roommate in my four-bed ward who was making no effort to continue his education or plan for a new career. One day he told me why: "I'm going to wait seven years for a cure. Then I'm going to kill myself."

 The false optimism Reeve is peddling is not just psychologically harmful, cruelly raising hopes. The harm is practical too. The newly paralyzed young might end up emulating Reeve, spending hours on end preparing their bodies to be ready to walk the day the miracle cure comes, much like the millenarians who abandon their homes and sell their worldly goods to await the Rapture on a mountaintop. These kids should instead be spending those hours reading, studying and preparing themselves for the opportunities in the new world that high technology has for the first time in history made possible for the disabled.  

They can have jobs and lives and careers. But they'll need to work very hard at it. And they'll need to start with precisely the psychological acceptance of reality that Reeve is so determined to undermine. If I am wrong, the worst that can happen is that when the miracle comes,  the nonbelievers will find themselves over-trained and over-toughened. But if Reeve is wrong, what will his dreamers be left with?  -Charles Krauthammer

from TIME Magazine  2/14/2000 Copyright 2000 Time Inc.


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