Share on PinterestAs both Superman and a person who lived with paralysis, Christopher Reeve has been an inspiration and beacon of hope for people around the world. Getty Images
On Oct. 10, 2004, the world lost a real-life superhero when Christopher Reeve, advocate and actor, passed away at the age of 52.
In the final decade of his life, Reeve, best known for his iconic role as Superman, had become just as much a symbol of hope as the Man of Steel himself.
After a spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the neck down, he would go on to harness the power of his fame to help found the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and spurring the chase for a cure for paralysis.
Now, 15 years after his death, Reeve still stands as a beacon to millions of people around the world who have a spinal cord injury, while the foundation he started continues to fight for a future where lifelong spinal cord injuries are a thing of the past.
Reeve’s enduring influence permeated the room at the foundation’s annual “A Magical Evening” gala at Cipriani South Street in New York City earlier this month. An awards ceremony honoring spinal cord injury advocates, the event was both a celebration of the strides made in understanding spinal cord injuries and a reminder that more work needs to be done.
It was also a bittersweet commemoration of those no longer here, given that the two people who are key parts of the foundation’s name have passed — Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana, who died from lung cancer in 2006.
This mix of emotions was something the evening’s emcee — Will Reeve, son of the foundation’s founders — said he usually feels each year as the gala comes around.
While it was his first year hosting the ceremony, the event is close to his heart. Not only has the foundation been a part of most of his life, he also now sits on its board of directors alongside his older siblings Matthew Reeve and Alexandra Reeve Givens.
“It’s an event I and my family look forward to every year. It marks the passage of times in a lot of ways, but it also marks progress as well. It marks progress because we are doing so much each year, we are advancing the cause so much, every day, every year, every week,” Will Reeve, who is also a reporter for ABC News, told Healthline before the start of the event. “We are here to celebrate the community that we are a real beacon for and a part of — it’s hugely important to me and my family.”
When asked what his famous father would think of the evening honoring a range of advocates and leaders in the spinal cord injury community, Will Reeve said he knows his dad would be “very happy” and “thrilled to see old friends and make new ones and see the progress that’s been made.”
He added that his father was the kind of person who “would never rest until the job is done,” a trait he says he shares with his siblings.
Will Reeve was just 3 years old when his father’s life changed forever — Christopher Reeve became paralyzed when he suffered a cervical spinal cord injury from a horse-riding accident.
He was 11 when his father died after going into cardiac arrest following an antibiotic treatment for an infection. Two years later, his mother died when he was just 13 years old.
These tragedies have been part of a life where spinal cord injury advocacy has been key to the Reeve family’s identity. Will Reeve calls events like the gala a regular “aspect of my life” but also reminders of the marks his parents made.
“Any time someone wanted to stop my parents on the street, any time my parents were honored with an award or whatever else, any time I was reminded of the impact that my parents had was important to me,” he said.
The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC), reports approximately 291,000 people are living in the United States with a spinal cord injury.
Zooming out globally, the World Health Organization says between 250,000 and 500,000 suffer a spinal cord injury each year.
Vehicle crashes are the leading cause, followed by falls, acts of violence, sports and recreational activities, as well as medical and surgical procedures, according to the NSCISC.
Given how common these injuries are, the call for both more advanced therapies and continued research that could lead to the fabled “cure” (the return of a person’s mobility) is loud and clear.
Ethan Perlstein, PhD, who was named the foundation’s first chief scientific officer this fall, said the spinal cord injury community has experienced a lot of frustration over the years.
He said past suggestions of breakthroughs haven’t always panned out as expected, and there’s always the challenge of securing funds for research and disseminating clear, accurate information to the public.
“People use the word ‘cure,’ they toss it around a lot. The community has to be able to believe again. We have to communicate those big wins, not just about being in the ‘ivory tower,’ and raising big funds, it’s about talking about all of this, engaging with the community — getting the community to believe, but also getting the community to participate in [clinical] trials,” Perlstein told Healthline at the gala.
Perlstein doesn’t come to the foundation directly with background on spinal cord research.
However, he’s worked in the biomedical research realm, founding his own start-up in 2014, Perlara PBC, which worked directly with…