Jeremy Laurance: The truth about Superman's achievements

Perhaps Reeve knew that his efforts would be more likely to pay off for others than for him
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The Independent Online

On screen he was superhuman. But it was off screen, arguably, where he displayed his real strength. Christopher Reeve, who died yesterday of heart failure aged 52, never lost his belief in life despite suffering almost the worst injury it is possible to imagine.

He came close. He confessed once to having contemplated suicide in the early days. He was brought back from the brink by the support of his family and the discovery, which was unusually quick to dawn, that he could still contribute something even in his gravely disabled state.

He became the most famous quadriplegic in the world - with the possible exception of the scientist Stephen Hawking. After the catastrophic fall from his horse in 1995 that left him paralysed from the shoulders down, he devoted his life, and a considerable part of his fortune, to trying to repair his body and to campaigning for more research into spinal-cord injury.

He hired doctors and therapists, invested in exercise machines and electrical-stimulation devices and investigated umpteen new treatments from the orthodox to the outlandish.

Less than a year after his injury, he began accepting invitations for speaking engagements and travelled across the US speaking about disability issues. He became a leading champion of embryonic stem-cell research, which is more controversial in the US than the UK, and a fierce critic of President George Bush's opposition to it.

In 2000, Newsweek magazine observed that he had won greater attention for the 250,000 Americans affected by spinal-cord injury than for the millions affected by mass killers such as lung cancer and stroke. He was the ambassador every charity dreams of finding.

He promoted the cause by using his own case to demonstrate what could be achieved. But in doing so he exposed the central dilemma for a patient faced with a dreadful injury, and for his treating physician - how to sustain morale and the will to live without unreasonably raising expectations. There is nothing crueller than giving patients false hope.

Striking the right balance is difficult. He made a series of programmes about himself called "Christopher Reeve: I will walk again". In one, broadcast in 2002, he claimed he was on the road to recovery having succeeded in wiggling the toes of his left foot and moving the fingers of his left hand. He could distinguish hot and cold, he claimed, and feel a pin-prick anywhere on his body. Best of all he said, he could feel his family's hugs.

"To be able to feel the lightest touch, it's really a great gift. The fact is that, even if your body doesn't work the way it used to, the heart and the mind and the spirit are not diminished. It's as simple as that."

These were impressive claims, and they were backed by his doctors who described his recovery as remarkable. This led to speculation that he would indeed walk again, a dream that John Kerry, the Democrat candidate in the race for the White House, repeated only last week in the second of his televised debates with Mr Bush.

But in truth, the progress that Reeve had made was not as great as he said. Five years earlier, in a television interview, he had made similar claims about sensing the touch of his son Will, then aged five.

"I can feel his arm on mine," he said then. "The thing I want more though is to put my arm around him. That's what he is entitled to. And I believe that day is coming."

British specialists, with the advantage of an ocean's distance, felt able to be blunter than their American counterparts. The unpalatable truth was that, for people with severe spinal injuries of the sort suffered by Reeve, they either recovered in the first six to 12 months or they did not recover at all. Some might learn to move fingers or toes, as Reeve did, but significant progress after that point was unheard of.

But Reeve had another objective, as he put it in an interview in 1999, "not only to recover my body but to recover a sense of purpose." He toured America tirelessly, disconnecting his ventilator to gulp out a few words, raising tens of millions of dollars for medical research. He had a device implanted in his chest that allowed him to breathe, and hence speak, unaided for hours at a time.

His efforts were rewarded with a series of scientific studies into the regeneration of the spinal cord. Alas, its fruits are yet to come. But, without his energy and optimism, the research might never have happened - and it may benefit later generations.

As Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said yesterday: "It is absolutely wrong to raise false expectations about the speed with which medical research progresses, but it takes people like Reeve, with their commitment and their certainty that they will be cured, to carry it forward."

Perhaps, as Professor Blakemore suggested, Reeve knew deep in his mind that his efforts would be more likely to pay off for others than for him. But they paid off for him in a different way - providing him with a sense of purpose to which he could apply his superhuman will.