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
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
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