NEW YORK (Oct. 12)
Christopher Reeve, the paralyzed actor who was an inspiration to so many, himself drew inspiration from a trip he took to Israel in 2003. “It was one of the most rewarding trips of my life,” Reeve said after the trip in a JTA interview. “It was really a privilege to have been there, not just because they treated me so well — that was great — but because of the people we met.”
Reeve, who made his name playing “Superman,” died this week at 52. The cause of death was heart failure stemming from an infection.
Reeve surprised even his doctors when he was able to move an index finger years after the 1995 horse-riding accident that crippled him.
In addition, repeated electrical stimulation of the muscles gave him sporadic sensation in other parts of his body — and he never gave up the hope that he would walk again.
Reeve also became an activist, addressing the U.S. Congress on the benefits of research that could help para- and quadriplegics.
It was in this role that he visited research institutions and rehabilitation centers in Israel. He was particularly interested in the work of neurobiologist Michal Schwartz, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and scientists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
During his trip to Israel, Reeve also visited the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a Beit Halochem Rehabilitation Center and the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
He also met with scientists from Hebrew University, where researchers are working on creating purified lines of human embryonic stem cells.
Scientists there already have demonstrated the ability of stem cells to become new heart tissue, he said, and are doing cutting-edge work in computational neuroscience, the study of how the brain and nervous system work.
“That technology is moving along very rapidly in Israel,” Reeve told JTA. “The United States is giving away its pre-eminence in biomedical research because of pressure from social and religious conservatives, and it’s particularly disturbing because polls show that 70 percent of the American public is in favor of all forms of stem-cell research.”
President Bush has allowed federal funds for research using existing embryonic stem-cell lines from 2001, but few of those lines are still viable today. His Democratic challenger in next month’s presidential election, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), favors expanding federal funding for stem-cell research.
During last Friday’s presidential debate, Kerry called Reeve a “friend of mine,” adding, “I want him to walk again.”
Reeves’ trip to Israel was organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and sponsored, in part, by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Reeve said he came away from his trip to Israel with a sense of the courage of Israeli scientists and the importance of science to the Jewish state.
He also left with admiration for the average Israeli.
“I sensed the precariousness, the fragility of everyday life,” he said. “I got a real sense of people working together, of a great deal of mutual respect — that the Israeli people are very full of life, full of energy, and they seem to make the most out of every moment.”