Friends and admirers are paying tribute to "Superman" star and spinal cord research advocate Christopher Reeve, who died Sunday, nine years after he was paralyzed in a 1995 horseback riding accident.
Barbara Walters interviewed Reeve several times after the accident. Here is an excerpt from her final interview with the actor, who fought tirelessly not only for his own recovery, but to raise awareness of spinal cord injuries and to advocate for stem cell research.
An abrupt stop by his horse in an equestrian event on a beautiful day in May 1995 changed actor Christopher Reeve's life forever.
Thrown from the horse, Reeve fractured his upper cervical vertebra so severely that doctors never thought he would live, much less regain any movement at all or breathe on his own.
In the eight years since his devastating fall, Reeve has made progress many doctors thought impossible. After consulting with many, he devised a rigorous exercise program years ago, and it has shown astounding results.
"When I was injured, I only had some sensation over 12 percent of my body. And today, I have some degree of sensation over more than 70 percent," Reeve said.
What Reeve has done, doctors say, could have far-reaching implications for all spinal cord injury patients.
Click here for Web resources on paralysis and spinal cord injuries.
Reeve not only exercised his body but his diaphragm as well, he was concerned that if and when he walked again, he would still be tethered to the cumbersome ventilator that does all his breathing for him.
His dependence on the ventilator was chillingly captured in the remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. In a scene that replicated dozens of moments in his own life — and that he insisted on doing for real — his character nearly dies when the tubes connecting him to the vent pop off, leaving him gasping for breath and rapidly suffocating.
Reeve describes the experience of becoming unhooked from the ventilator tubes as "absolutely terrifying." His paralysis leaves him unable to replace the tubes himself. Others have died in such accidents.
This past February, Reeve took a major step away from that fear and that risk.
He went to University Hospitals in Cleveland for an experimental procedure that, if it worked, would enable him to breathe off the ventilator.
It was an exciting and frightening journey for Reeve, who was only the third person in the country to try the surgery. Only one of the two previous operations had succeeded. It was a risk, but a carefully calculated one, and Reeve came through with flying colors.
Reeve said he had been hoping for years to be able to breathe without the aid of a ventilator. And last week, Reeve demonstrated for Barbara Walters how he is now able to breathe without his ventilator for hours at a time.
"I've never done this in public. It's the first time. This is the first time I've ever done this," he told Walters.
His ventilator was turned off. His diaphragm pacemaker was turned on, and a tiny device that monitors oxygen levels in his blood was placed on his ear.
As he did with the ventilator, Reeve must practice breathing and speaking with the new device, but there are already benefits he hadn't even considered. Specifically, he's regained his sense of smell.