On October 9, 2004, nine years after his horseback riding accident left him paralyzed, Christopher slipped into a coma. His wife Dana was 3,000 miles away when she received a devastating phone call telling her the news.
"I asked to speak to our nurse, Eileen. And she explained to me what happened; what the symptoms were. And I said, 'Do I need to get on a plane?' And she said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Do you think he might die?' And she said, 'Yes.'
"And right after I spoke with Eileen, my first call was to my friend, Marcia Williams, Robin's wife, and I said, 'Marcia, I have to fly home. She helped me get out of California. But I couldn't fly [that night]…so they got me a private plane, but it was not something I could get instantly. I had to wait until morning," Dana explains. "They had to get pilots together. They had to get clearance, and there were these things that had to happen. I had to wait until morning."
When she arrived in New York, Dana ran to her husband's bedside.
"We didn't take the elevator," she says. "I threw my things and ran into the room. It was clear to me that it was the end. He was surrounded by a team of nurses and doctors who were doing compressions on his chest to keep him alive. That's one thing I also said to Eileen. I said, 'Keep him alive until I get there.'
"I was crying and saying, 'I love you,' and, 'Goodbye,' and, 'I'm sorry I wasn't here.' … I then turned and I said, 'Thank you, thank you,' to the doctors and to the nurses who were basically just keeping the blood going through his body and keeping him, his body, living so that I could say goodbye and so that [Christopher and Dana's son] Will could say goodbye."
Before slipping into a coma due to complications from infections, Christopher "had gone to Will's hockey game, and he was so happy about that," Dana says. "He loved going to Will's hockey games. He had a great day."
Dana says even though she wasn't there when Christopher slipped into a coma, she doesn't feel as though she missed her chance to say goodbye. "I had nine-and-a-half years! … And I feel [that] that is 'living the final conversation.' He could have easily died in the field when he had his accident, and Will would never have remembered him—would never have had that dad. And I feel like how lucky [to have him]."
After the injury, Christopher and his family's lives were utterly changed.
Dana: It was a huge adjustment. And it was a life full of challenges every day. We needed to have a number of people there to help. You can't do something spontaneously, like go to the movies: you need to make sure you can get into the movies. You need to call up and make sure there's no step, and if there is you need to bring a ramp.
Oprah: You can't go on vacation anywhere that isn't wheelchair accessible.
Dana: Absolutely not. It becomes a new normal. It's a new rhythm of things. It's a lot of logistics.
Christopher's oldest son, Matthew, documented his father's daily struggles on film. Christopher, describing his life after the accident, expressed his frustrations. "I was incredibly lucky to survive," he said. "But because I breathe on a ventilator, I have to have a nurse on duty 24 hours a day. One of the real losses is the loss of independence. I was always an incredibly independent person. I loved to spend time alone, and that's been very, very hard because I have never once ever been able to be alone. And to be a grown man and have to be washed and dressed and fed by other people, it's just a kind of a cruel irony. … Sometimes I get so jealous just, literally, seeing somebody get up out of a chair and walk across the room that I know they're not even thinking about it and I'm going, 'God, how did that happen? I can't even do that? I mean, how can this be my life?'"
For Christopher, one of the most dispiriting elements of his condition was seeing others who were not physically paralyzed, but were nonetheless mentally paralyzed.
"He felt…he was doing more sitting completely still, having a machine breathe for him, than many people do that get stuck," Dana says. "They get stuck…and life is hard. It's full of a lot of challenges and difficulties and it's hard not to be self-pitying or to get stuck or be afraid or say I can't do it."
Christopher's and Dana's son Will was almost three years old when his father had his tragic accident.
Oprah: So what are your favorite memories?
Will: I would have to say just the common bond of hockey. He was one of the biggest hockey fans I know, and I love hockey as well. He used to love coming to my games and we used to go to New York Ranger games all the time and we'd just talk about that non-stop, and it was just really fun to be able to share something that we both loved so much. It was really nice.
Oprah: And so how are you coping with him not being here?
Will: It's definitely weird, but I try to remember him and all of the great things and the great person that he was. And I try to just live like he did and if I can be half the guy he was, I'll be a great guy.
Dana says the house is quieter since Christopher's death. And she says the grief comes bubbling up at times when she doesn't expect it.
"Even just getting on the plane yesterday, it was so funny because we were turning off our cell phones and I had a moment where I thought, 'Oh, we better call Daddy to let him know that we're on the plane,'" she says. "And I thought, 'Well, that hasn't happened in a while,' and I sort of found myself missing him then.
"You have to just let [the grief] come and acknowledge it," she adds. "And most of the time I think we're really pretty positive and optimistic and we're so lucky to have the life that we have and had with him. But it comes from little places. Little triggers that you don't expect. Little reminders."
Some of Christopher's friends sent their messages of love:
Glenn Close: Chris is one of the smartest, most articulate people that I have ever known. He was sharp as a tack and very, very funny…Having known him when he was at his most glorious and seeing him develop into the great man that he did become in that chair, I still took it for granted that he would always be around.
Robin Williams: He had the ability to deal with this incredible setback and give focus to something that had been, up 'til that point, [what] people considered a lost cause. He still continued to direct, act, write—all of these things in the face of this, which was extraordinary…[When] I found out about Chris' death…it blindsided me. I still feel he's around. I feel like at any moment I can call him, but he's gone.
Alec Baldwin: Dana, I guess the one thing that people would find out about you as a result of Chris' accident is what an incredibly strong person you are. My prayers are with you.
Dana McCarty was a bright, athletic teenager with a dangerous hobby: Motocross racing. But a race on one Sunday morning would be his last. In his fifth lap, Dana hit a hole and flipped about five times. When doctors told him he would never walk again, Dana contemplated suicide. "I was at the bottom," he says. "You can't get lower than what I was."
But a Superman was about to change Dana forever. Dana saw Christopher Reeve on TV, and was inspired by his dedication to life. "I right then and there [decided] that I wasn't going sit in that room for the next eight years of my life," Dana says. "I was going to make the most of it."
Dana had a message for Dana Reeve: "I want you to know that even though your husband is no longer with us, he remains a mentor and my role model for life. The strength and compassion he showed us all drives me each day to try to overcome my own personal hurdles. … I hope that one day I can help make a difference like he did. He not only changed my life, he saved it."
At 13 years old, Molly loved to compete in athletics and was a star on the community swim team. One day during a routine practice, Molly dove too deep and hit her head on the bottom of the pool. "The next thing I knew, I couldn't move," she says. "I had no idea what happened. I was laying at the bottom of the pool and my body was just numb."
At the hospital, Molly spent almost eight hours in surgery, literally fighting for her life. Doctors told Molly's parents their daughter had suffered a serious spinal cord injury and that she was paralyzed from her triceps down. Two days later, Molly's lung collapsed. She remained in intensive care for 18 days, and doctors told her parents that she had a one percent chance of walking or moving her hands.
Molly wanted Dana and Will to know how Christopher's foundation helped change her life. Although doctors said she had less than a one percent chance of ever walking or using her hands again, today, Molly has limited movement thanks to treatment that is funded by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
Molly met Christopher Reeve just a week before he passed away. "We talked about all the therapies, and he was very interested in everything," Molly says. "Thank you, Dana, for everything. Because of your husband, I'm walking today. And I just wanted to thank you."
Dana says she is thrilled to see how the foundation's rehabilitative research is helping people like Molly.
"Molly was able to enjoy the Lokomat®—the treadmill walking therapy," Dana says. "And this is what Chris did, too. He had some return of function. He was so excited…Molly's a perfect example of what you can fund if you give to our foundation."
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