Filling Superman's Shoes

One year ago today, Cody Unser, then 17, awoke in her bedroom in New Mexico to the news that Christopher Reeve had died.

"It was shocking," said Cody, who couldn't bear to go to school that day. "I didn't know what to think."

Her thoughts cleared about two weeks later as she sat among Reeve's friends and family at his memorial service at The Juilliard School in New York City.

"You could feel his presence through the entire ceremony," Cody said. "He had been such an inspiration to me and his life and legacy will not die even though he passed away."

Reeve played Superman on the big screen and to countless people, he was a real-life super hero. After an equestrian accident left him paralyzed from the neck down in 1995, Reeve threw himself behind the cause of helping those with spinal cord injuries, and, as a result, spinal cord research, treatment and public awareness made huge advances.

When the Man of Steel succumbed to an infection from a bed sore a year ago, he left a huge emotional, physical and financial gap in the world of the estimated 200,000 Americans who have sustained a spinal cord injury. But he also left a legacy of hope to young people like Cody, who wants to bring the world of science and politics together, aspiring politician Brooke Ellison, and surfer Jesse Billauer.

"Chris showed everyone the path and he left that path," Cody said. "I may be paralyzed, but my voice is not."

Cody Unser

Cody Unser was by all accounts a healthy teenager until a basketball practice in February 1999 when she suddenly began struggling for air and was overcome by a blinding headache. Twenty-four hours later, the 12-year-old was paralyzed from the waist down.

Cody, whose father is racing great Al Unser, was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, according to the National Center for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The inflammation can damage or destroy myler nerve cell fibers, and that damage causes scars that interrupt communication between the nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

Just seven months after her diagnosis, Cody and her mother, Shelley, founded the Cody Unser First Step Foundation to promote awareness about transverse myelitis and paralysis in general, but it is within the last year that Cody has operated with a new sense of urgency.

"She has really amazed me with how much she has been doing ever since Christopher Reeve's death," said Shelley Unser.

In May, Cody visited Capitol Hill to advocate for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would allow for excess embryos that have been harvested for use in invitro fertilization to be used for stem cell research.

"There's an educational and communication barrier between the politicians and the scientists," Cody said. "This is not a political issue, it's a human issue. I think morality demands compassion and I haven't been seeing a lot of compassion amongst politicians."

On May 24, the legislation was approved by the House of Representatives by a 238-194 vote and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Cody is continuing her efforts to marry politics and science. She has created her own major at the University of Redlands in California where she is a freshman in political biology.

"Right now I'm just trying to enjoy life and make a difference where I can and one day become president of the United States," Cody said.

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