Aided not only by his acting skills but also by his good looks and imposing physique at six feet four inches tall, he became a star. In 1995, at age forty-two, Reeve had performed in seventeen feature films (including the blockbuster Superman), a dozen movies for television, and about 150 plays. He was financially secure and had achieved critical acclaim.
But then his life was turned upside down.
On May 27, 1995, during the cross-country portion of a riding competition, Christopher Reeve was thrown from his horse, Buck. He crashed headfirst into the fence his horse refused to jump and then fell to the ground. He sustained an injury to his spine at the first and second vertebrae, and his breathing stopped. He was paralyzed from the neck down. If the paramedics hadn’t arrived in minutes, he would not have lived.
Reeve has no memory of the fall. He remembers the time he spent in the stables a few minutes before his ride. The next thing he remembers is waking up a few days later in the intensive care unit of the University of Virginia. During those few intense days, doctors kept him alive with a respirator, stabilized him, and literally reattached his head to his spine surgically. The damage Reeve had sustained is sometimes called the hangman’s injury. Reeve later quipped, “It was as if I’d been hanged, cut down and sent to rehab.”
He was given a 50 percent chance of surviving. A serious spinal cord injury is difficult for any person to survive, emotionally as well as physically. An injury that leaves you helpless must be unfathomably devastating. But in the hours after he first woke up, he began to understand the real importance of a team. “When they told me what my condition was, I felt that I was no longer a human being,” he recalls. “Then Dana came into my room and knelt down to the level of my bed. We made eye contact. I said, ‘Maybe this isn’t worth it. Maybe I should just check out.’ And she was crying, and she said, ‘But you’re still you, and I love you.’ And that saved my life.”
Before the accident, Christopher and Dana Reeve had a good quality marriage. But in the years since then, they have developed an even stronger partnership. Chris, Dana, and their son, Will, function as the core of that team, but they have also developed a wonderful larger team around them, consisting of an army of medical professionals. Some assist Chris with rigorous physical therapy, exercise, and respiratory therapy. Others feed, clothe, and bathe him, as well as help with other personal needs. Someone has to turn him over hourly each night as he sleeps. And he sees numerous specialists on a regular basis.
At first, the people around him simply kept him alive. But now they work to keep him healthy. “What you begin to say to yourself, instead of ‘What life do I have?’ is ‘What life can I build?’ And the answer, surprisingly, is, ‘More than you think.’” Reeve hoped to walk again someday. He never did.
But he understood his need for dependable people on his team. “If all the people who are around to help me were mad at me or in a lousy mood or whatever, and they went away,” he observed, “there’d be nothing I could do about it. Absolutely nothing . . . It all comes down to goodwill. Nobody has to do any of those things; I’m completely dependent on them.” That’s the way it is on every team, whether we can see it as clearly as Reeve did. Teammates must be able to depend on one another.