I asked questions about the spinal cord and why the nerves inside it could not regenerate. Usually I had these conversations late at night with the residents and nurses on duty in the unit. (The days were filled with family, visitors, and the routines of necessary care.) Nobody claimed to know for certain, but the prevailing explanation was that it had to do with evolution. An animal paralyzed by a spinal cord injury would most likely be a ready-to-serve meal for another animal higher on the food chain. Even if nerve regeneration in the spinal cord was possible it couldn't happen quickly, so the injured animal would still be easy prey. Without medical intervention the victim of a spinal cord injury--animal or human--usually dies within hours or days, depending on the severity of the case. Almost every one of these late-night discussions ended with the conclusion that I should just consider myself lucky to be alive. I wasn't so sure.
Apparently no one in my little nighttime universe knew that a handful of scientists around the world had been investigating the possibility of regeneration in the spinal cord as early as the 1970s. In 1981 Dr. Alberto Aguayo, at McGill University in Montreal, using a cocktail of growth-enhancing chemicals, achieved regeneration and modest functional recovery in rats.
I only began to focus on spinal cord research in early September 1995. Until then my primary concern was survival, not only for me as a patient but for Dana and my three children, Matthew (fifteen), Alexandra (eleven), and Will (three). Their love and the love that flowed from my extended family, as well as from friends and even complete strangers all over the world, had saved me from my initial desire to end it all. In 2002, seven years after the accident and in the year of my fiftieth birthday, I look back with almost indescribable gratitude at the moment when Dana knelt by my bedside and said, "You're still you, and I love you."
Her simple but profound declaration became the basis for my autobiography, Still Me, which was published in 1998. But in describing that scene I never mentioned one critical detail: in response to my thoughts about ending my life, she said that we should wait for at least two years. Then, if I still felt the same, we could find a way to let me go. On one level, you could say she used the oldest selling technique in the book: you offer customers a free trial, a free sample, with no obligation and no money down, in order to get them on the hook. On another level, a much deeper one where our love and respect for each other has always lived, she knew that I was only in the first stage of a natural reaction to tragedy. Asking me to wait was the perfect course of action. She was giving me room, the freedom to make a choice, yet knowing what that choice would be in time.
The first decision flowed from Dana's words and the look on the faces of all three children when they came into my room. While Dana supported the option to reconsider the value of life at a point in the future, I could tell in an instant that the children wanted me to live and be there for them now. I consented to the surgery. I gave the doctors permission to suction secretions out of my lungs and use IV antibiotics to treat the pneumonia that otherwise would have caused my death. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I had chosen the path toward survival. Inner turmoil and the highs and lows caused by contradictory information would become the norm, but there would be no turning back.
First I had to learn to swallow. Even though I passed the test, the smell and taste of food were repulsive. A feeding tube was inserted into my stomach, and during the night a bagful of mocha-colored goop containing essential nutrients dripped down a long catheter into the site. Once a day a team of nurses and physical therapists transferred me into a wheelchair and pushed me down a corridor into the dayroom, where I could receive visitors and have someone in my family read letters to me for no more than thirty minutes. Then it was back to bed.
Excerpted from Nothing Is Impossible by Christopher Reeve. Copyright 2002 by Christopher Reeve. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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