Barbara Walters' Last Interview With Christopher Reeve

ByABC News
November 13, 2003, 7:41 PM

Oct. 11, 2004 -- -- 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.

In the eight years since his accident, Reeve has never been able to be more than 30 seconds away from a nurse. Though he shares a room and bed with his wife, Dana, the risks with the diaphragm pacemaker are so great that he still requires constant monitoring. Privacy is minimal.

"It kind of disrupts the romance a little bit," Reeve said.

While the experimental surgery hasn't given Reeve any more privacy, the "emotional relief" it has given him "is tremendous," he said.

"It gives me a sense of one more piece of the puzzle being solved, because a spinal chord injury affects every system in the body, bladder, bowels, sexual function, everything. So, the more and more that you can get some systems back like the ability to breathe as normal just makes you feel that you're moving forward."

Reeve is still pursuing his ultimate goal to walk again. "I still think I will. I'm not sure when it's going to happen," he said.

As he has all along, Reeve continues to work tirelessly on behalf of millions struggling with incurable diseases or disabilities. This fall he received the Lasker Award for heroic advocacy for medical research, the scientific community's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

In spite of considerable obstacles, he's begun to travel the world on behalf of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which offers more than $13 million in grants each year. Reeve plans to appear at a Nov. 24 fund-raiser for the foundation in New York, at which he will speak without the ventilator.

The medical progress he sees physicians making in countries around the globe inspires Reeve. But it also frustrates him, because he feels many researchers in America aren't pursuing experimental treatments as aggressively as he'd like.

On a recent visit to Israel, Reeve was profoundly affected by the work of Dr. Michal Schwartz, who has implanted a special type of blood cell into the spinal cords of acutely injured patients within 14 days of their accidents.

"The one that was stunning to me was the 30-year-old who two years ago was shot and his spinal chord was completely severed, which is much worse than my injury. And when I met him in July he's walking," Reeve said.

Reeve said this sort of experimental treatment isn't conducted in the United States. "It's because we're too timid. We have a lot of researchers who kind of make a career out of research sometimes. They're not as bold as they could be, and that really has to change."

Reeve acknowledges that some criticize him for being in a state of denial or giving other paralysis sufferers false hope that they may walk again. But he remains undaunted. "I would point to the case of what Dr. Schwartz has done in Israel," he said.

"That's not false hope, that's something that actually happened. We're about to lose our pre-eminence in science and medicine. We've got to come to the rescue. We've got to solve these problems."