Reeve was Superman to disabled Israelis, admired by researchers

jerusalem | The sudden death of Superman actor and spinal cord research advocate Christopher Reeve has left a giant hole in the hearts of disabled children and neurobiology researchers in Israel, which he visited in the summer of 2003 to see the country and its scientists firsthand.

“He was a great example to our graduates when he spent the day with us,” said Dr. Shirley Meyer, director-general of the Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem. “He made an incredible impression and served as a role model for them. He showed how you can continue to live with your dreams and aspirations even when disabled. He was hungry for every improvement. Our disabled children in wheelchairs admired him, and now we’ll discuss his death with them.”

Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a freak horseback riding accident in 1995, died Sunday, Oct. 10, of heart failure resulting from a bedsore developing into a serious infection.

Professor Michal Schwartz of the neurobiology department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, said, “We are all in shock. He was a great personal example and symbol, and his death is a great loss to our spinal injury research community. From the human aspect, he was outstanding, as he turned his disability into power. He amazed us with his physical abilities, to help himself and others and to promote the cause around the world.”

Schwartz, who had already sent a condolence letter to the widow, Dana Reeve, and her family, added sadly: “We were friends. He had many great expectations. He hoped that all scientists would join together to solve his problem and those of other people with paralysis. He hoped to walk again, but I think he learned to prepare to live with his disability even more than for the possibility of his walking.”

Schwartz, who’d visited Reeve three times in his New York home, noted that Reeve’s foundation promoted the subject of spinal cord injury and raised many millions of dollars in research funds around the world. “He was very impressed by the level of spinal cord research and the courage of Israeli researchers to go against convention. He recognized researchers here as being in the forefront.

Research in this subject is very difficult. Few scientists were willing to do it, because such meager resources were available, and there was very little reward, because the progress is so slow and difficult,” she said. “But Christopher Reeve upgraded it by increasing awareness about it not only among researchers but also among potential donors and government policy makers.”

Reeve promoted the application of stem cell research not only for treating spinal cord injury but also as an eventual cure for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, leukemia and other cancers, diabetes and a long list of other chronic disorders.

During his 2003 trip to Israel, Reeve also visited Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Beit Halochem Rehabilitation Center, and the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.

He also met with scientists from Hebrew University, where researchers are working on creating purified lines of human embryonic stem cells.