Election Section

Reeve’s Death Prompts New Appreciation of Life: By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday October 19, 2004

It’s hard to believe that I was jealous of a man who could not move his arms or legs, or breathe on his own, but I was. You see, in 1995 Christopher Reeve became paralyzed from the neck down, just as my husband Ralph did in a Claremont Avenue bicycling accident in 1994. But Reeve was less fortunate than Ralph. His injury was higher up on his spinal chord, and he was forced to use a ventilator in order to move his lungs. Even so, I was suspicious that because of his celebrity, Christopher Reeve received better treatment from his doctors than Ralph experienced at our HMO.  

Despite Reeve’s obvious physical frailties, and incredible difficulties, I was unjustly angry at him because I knew that in addition to his insurance coverage, he could afford to remodel his home and hire assistants out-of-pocket to provide additional, much needed care. I once saw a photograph of Reeve in a swimming pool surrounded by eight people holding him upright and performing physical therapy. 

Since his accident, Ralph has not been in a swimming pool, in part because I don’t know where I could find eight warm bodies willing to get in the water with him. I reluctantly read Christopher Reeve’s first memoir, envious that he had written a book shortly after becoming disabled. While I struggled with putting sentences together in order to tell my husband’s story, Christopher Reeve’s memoir was already in print and he was working on a follow-up manuscript. 

I learned that when Reeve was transferred from the University of Virginia Medical Center, one of his doctors volunteered to follow him to the next hospital, to ensure that his care was consistent and correct. No doctor at Kaiser has ever followed Ralph anywhere. I concluded bitterly that because of his fame, Christopher Reeve got more attention and superior treatment than other quadriplegics.  

For nine years I have listened for, read about, and watched Christopher Reeves’ battle against quadriplegia. Sometimes I didn’t want to know how he was faring; other times I had a morbid curiosity about his welfare. I looked for his photograph on the magazine rack at the Safeway check-out line, I watched for updates on the evening news about his experimental medical treatments, I stalked his wife when she came to the Bay Area to promote a book she had written about her husband’s situation. I gazed with both horror and fascination when he showed up on the Academy Awards, when his image appeared in an advertisement during the 2000 Super Bowl, when he spoke before congress, acted in movies, and directed a film.  

But this opinion on the advantages of fame and fortune has changed, now that I know that Reeve has died of the same complications most quads succumb to: a pressure wound on his body became severely infected, resulting in a systemic infection. Reeve fell into a coma and went into cardiac arrest. Only at this moment do I fully understand that Christopher Reeve suffered just as much as my husband, and that despite his round-the-clock, professional staff of 12, a fully wheelchair-accessible home, and a fan base of thousands praying for him, he is dead and my husband is still alive.  

Years ago, a live-in attendant who took good care of Ralph, (despite a minor crack habit and severe gambling problem) tried to sell me a bag of chicken wings he had either stolen or found on the street. When I told him no and lamented that Mrs. Reeve didn’t have to put up with such ludicrous and ridiculous behavior, he said, “You don’t appreciate nothin’ I do for you or Ralph.” It has taken the death of Christopher Reeve, a courageous man, to make me appreciate the things that I have.