I am the son of a real Su­per­man

Christo­pher Reeve’s son Matthew tells Vic­to­ria Lam­bert how watch­ing his fa­ther’s strug­gle made him want to help oth­ers

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features -

Matthew Reeve was 15 when he an­swered the early morn­ing phone call that would change not only the course of his life and that of his fam­ily, but also – in time – the lives of thou­sands of oth­ers around the world. “I was told my fa­ther had had an ac­ci­dent and hurt his neck,” says Matthew, now 38. “It was about 6am on a Sun­day. I re­mem­ber it vividly. My step­mother Dana called with the news and we flew out to the US to be with him as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

If you didn’t al­ready know it, Matthew’s fa­mil­iar denim-blue eyes, high cheek­bones and chis­elled jaw would leave no doubt that he is the el­dest child of the late Su­per­man ac­tor Christo­pher Reeve, who was as paral­ysed from the neck down in a rid­ing fall in May 1995, when he was 42.

Today, Matthew is in Gatwick, Sur­rey, to open Neu­rokinex Kids – the first pae­di­atric re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity in the UK to use cut­ting-edge dge ac­tiv­ity-based ther­a­pies which sup­port mus­cle de­vel­op­ment and stim­u­la­tion of the spinal cord at the same time. The aim is to pre­vent and re­verse mus­cle at­ro­phy, while try­ing to restart old neu­ral path­ways and cre­ate new ones that might help re­verse some of the paral­y­sis caused by dam­age to the spinal cord.

The Gatwick cen­tre al­ready serves adults with paral­y­sis and Neu­rokinex has two other lo­ca­tions: Hemel Hemp­stead and Bristol, where their pae­di­atric work is ex­pand­ing fur­ther. The Neu­rokinex ther­a­pies were es­tab­lished by the Neu­roRe­cov­ery Net­work (NRN), which Christo­pher Reeve es­tab­lished in the US to get sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ments in spinal cord work into re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres.

In the first days af­ter his fa­ther’s ac­ci­dent, says Matthew, a screen­writer who now lives in Stockholm, no one was talk­ing about re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. “Even af­ter a few weeks, it was still touch and go.” Reeve later wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Still Me that his in­juries were so bad, his own mother thought the doc­tors should with­draw life sup­port.

At the time, Matthew was liv­ing in Lon­don with his mother Gae Ex­ton, now

66, and his sis­ter

Alexan­dra

Reeve Givens, now 34. Reeve and Gae had ended their re­la­tion­ship in 1987, with the ac­tor later mar­ry­ing Dana Morosini, with whom he had an­other son Wil­liam, now aged 25.

“We were a close fam­ily re­gard­less,” says Matthew, who at­tended St Paul’s School in west Lon­don. “We would see our fa­ther ev­ery hol­i­day – ei­ther in the US or Lon­don, or on lo­ca­tion.

Matthew re­calls his favourite times with his fa­ther, a highly skilled pri­vate pi­lot, were of­ten air­borne. “Fly­ing was his hobby and ob­ses­sion. I have fond mem­o­ries of go­ing up in open cock­pit planes with him and in glid­ers. They are some of my hap­pi­est mem­o­ries.”

Af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Matthew and Alexan­dra re­turned to Lon­don, where he sat his GCSEs “some­how” while the fam­ily worked out how to es­tab­lish a new life for Reeve. In­for­ma­tion about re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tres was not eas­ily avail­able at the time, Matthew re­calls. “It was all pretty word of mouth but they found a place in New Jersey which meant we could fly in to see him.”

“My fa­ther was luck­ier than most,” says Matthew, “he had some re­sources and health in­sur­ance poli­cies. But his in­jury was so high up in the body and re­quired 24-hour care, there was a huge fi­nan­cial bur­den. He was on a ven­ti­la­tor and needed an ex­pen­sive wheel­chair.”

How did Matthew and his sib­lings cope? “We fol­lowed his lead. We saw his courage and re­silience and this fe­ro­cious drive to prove all the doc­tors wrong. To ev­ery­one who said ‘this is your wheel­chair and your fu­ture’, he said no.” There were still mo­ments of lev­ity. “He was a very funny guy with very dry, one-liner hu­mour. You have to find the hu­mour and warmth and love and com­pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing in these sit­u­a­tions.”

What sur­prised the fam­ily most was the sup­port they re­ceived from peo­ple they didn’t know. “Let­ters poured in from around the world wish­ing him well and send­ing charms and presents and gifts, notes of sup­port. It def­i­nitely helped keep him and all of us go­ing.”

Af­ter A-lev­els, Matthew went to Ivy League univer­sity, Brown, while his sis­ter went to Yale. “It gave us the chance to visit him more fre­quently and to see our younger brother.”

Reeve’s de­ter­mi­na­tion was un­con­strained; af­ter the ac­ci­dent, he said he hoped to stand by his 50th

‘He would have con­tin­ued fight­ing, that much I know. He had a fire in his belly’

birthday. “In his home there was a pic­ture of the Shut­tle on the launch pad about to lift off, with smoke com­ing from be­low it,” re­calls Matthew. “A bunch of Nasa en­gi­neers had sent it to him af­ter they heard him talk about his vi­sion­ary goal of walk­ing again. He had this at­ti­tude: just be­cause some­one says some­thing is im­pos­si­ble, doesn’t mean it is. Be­fore it hap­pened, the idea of flight wasn’t imag­in­able.”

At the time, Reeve – like ev­ery­one else – thought the cure for stem cord in­juries would be bi­o­log­i­cal and un­der­took phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity-based training to keep his body ready for when the cure came.

Matthew ex­plains: “Con­ven­tional wis­dom at the time was that the spinal cord was a one-way street; ev­ery­thing came from the brain down­ward. But now there is the sense that it is more of a dual car­riage­way.

“What came to light with my fa­ther was that do­ing ac­tiv­ity-based ther­apy was awak­en­ing dor­mant path­ways in the spinal cord.”

By 2000 Reeve found he was able to move his left in­dex fin­ger and re­gain some sen­sa­tion so could feel his chil­dren’s touch. Later he could vol­un­tar­ily move his arm a lit­tle: “Ac­ti­vat­ing his arm be­came the goal, be­yond his broader one of get­ting out of his wheel­chair.”

Trag­i­cally, how­ever, Reeve fell ill and died of com­pli­ca­tions fol­low­ing a bout of sep­sis in 2004. The fam­ily were hit by fur­ther blows when Dana’s mother died a few months later, and Dana her­self was di­ag­nosed with lung can­cer to which she suc­cumbed in 2006.

It was des­per­ately un­fair, says Matthew, es­pe­cially for his brother Wil­liam, who lost both par­ents and a grand­par­ent in two years. But the sib­lings pulled to­gether, the char­ity was re­named The Christo­pher and Dana Reeve Foun­da­tion and sup­port­ing it helped pro­pel them for­ward.

“We all felt it was a priv­i­lege to carry on the work. There was such progress be­ing made. And we knew how im­por­tant it had been to them. We’re fam­ily and we stuck to­gether.”

Look­ing at the progress his fa­ther helped to drive, does Matthew think Reeve might have achieved his aim of walk­ing again?

He thinks for a mo­ment. “He would have con­tin­ued fight­ing, that much I know. My fa­ther had this un­wa­ver­ing en­ergy and com­mit­ment to get­ting out of that chair. He had fire in his belly.”

Matthew, son of Christo­pher Reeve, as Su­per­man, left, at the Neu­rokinex cen­tre open­ing

Fa­ther and son: at an event in 2002 for Christo­pher Reeve Paral­y­sis Foun­da­tion

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