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Shepherd Center Co-Founder Salutes the Legacy of the Late Christopher Reeve

Actor, director and activist Christopher Reeve, who passed away 10 years ago, supported the quest for a cure and improved treatments for paralysis.

By James Shepherd
Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board, Shepherd Center

Today, on the 10th anniversary of the passing of actor, director and spinal cord injury activist Christopher Reeve, we reflect on the wonderful gift he gave us. He brought national visibility to the often-overlooked issues facing people with spinal cord injury – coupled with the credibility of an articulate and revered public figure.

Christopher used his personal tragedy – he sustained a C-1, paralyzing spinal cord injury in a 1995 equestrian competition – and acclaim as an actor to rally support for finding a cure for paralysis, as well as efforts to improve the quality of life for people living with the condition. He and his wife Dana founded the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which raises funds for and sponsors research. And Christopher served as vice chairman of the National Organization on Disability and contributed to numerous legislative initiatives to help people with paralysis.

Recognizing the quest for a cure for paralysis was a long process, Christopher helped pioneer several therapeutic technologies that have improved the quality of life among people with paralysis.

Christopher’s use of a functional electrical stimulation (FES) bicycle raised awareness about this technology and, according to his physician Dr. John McDonald, helped him regain some function seven years after his injury. Dr. McDonald developed an FES bike that allows the user to remain in his or her own wheelchair while using the bike. These bikes are used daily now at Shepherd Center and other rehabilitation facilities to help prevent muscle atrophy in people with paralysis. Also, Christopher’s participation as one of the first patients in a clinical trial led, in part, to FDA approval of a diaphragmatic pacing system (DPS), which can alleviate the need for a ventilator for breathing – at least part of the time – in some patients who cannot wean from a vent.

In addition, the Reeve Foundation has sponsored research showing that activity-based therapy can promote functional recovery, as well as a healthy lifestyle. Examples of activity-based therapy offered at Shepherd Center are:

  • Beyond Therapy, a rigorous, activity-based therapy program designed by Shepherd Center to help people with a variety of neurological disorders improve their lifelong health, minimize secondary complications and get the most out of any new neural links to their muscles. (See our recent feature article by clicking here.)
  • Shepherd Step, an intensive walking program coupling body-weight-supported locomotor training (BWSLT) on a treadmill with overground activities. (See our recent feature article by clicking here.)

After his injury, Christopher dedicated his life to finding a cure for paralysis and promoted improved treatments, such as the ones mentioned here. He visited Shepherd Center twice and even filmed part of a movie at the hospital. As a fan of all excellent comprehensive rehabilitation programs, he advised a number of patients to come to Shepherd Center for care. Christopher recognized the importance of excellent rehabilitation care in improving outcomes and quality of life after discharge.

Perhaps his greatest legacy, Christopher Reeve inspired many people with spinal cord injury and other conditions to keep going and not give up. Today, we thank him and salute all of his efforts and the continued work of the Reeve Foundation.

JAMES SHEPHERD is a co-founder – along with his parents Harold and Alana Shepherd and Medical Director Emeritus David Apple, M.D. – of Shepherd Center, a 152-bed Atlanta hospital that specializes in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury and brain injury. James sustained a paralyzing C-4 spinal cord injury in a 1973 bodysurfing accident in Brazil. After completing rehabilitation in Denver and returning home to Atlanta, James and his parents were frustrated with the lack of rehabilitation care options in the Southeast. In 1975, with the help of many supporters, they founded Shepherd Center, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2015.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.