13 October 2004

--- Bed Sores as Doomsday

Last night, I was able to watch Christopher Reeve's first and last appearance in Tom Welling's Smallville. That was episode 38 and titled "Rosetta" of the second season of Smallville. It was my first time to see Reeve back in a Superman program. I have watched Superman I to Superman IV since my college days.

By now, you must have heard about the news of Christopher Reeve's passing. Before his death, he was in the middle of a battle most will probably describe as "heroic." It was the stuff that made comic superheroes popular among us fans. But this time, his battle was for real. He was up against the ravages brought about by his spinal injury which paralyzed his body and he was also up against politics and support for stem-cell research that promised to save him and many others like him. Those alone, I think needed superhuman strength to hurdle.

News of his death shocked millions worldwide:

"Reeve fell into a coma after going into cardiac arrest at his New York home where, in a wheelchair and stimulated by what he described as 'massive doses of calcium for my bones', he worked assiduously, with a word-activated computer, spreading the word on the stem-cell research that might have saved him." [Telegraph UK]

Almost ten years ago, DC Comics killed the comic book Superman thru Doomsday. This time, Doomsday for Chris Reeve proved to be virulent infections from bed sores, which any surgeon or physician will attest are difficult confounders in the treatment process of co-morbidities. What many do not know is that it wasn't just the cardiac arrest that did him in. There were a host of factors that defeated this courageous man. Here are accounts of the significant events that led to his demise:

"But for those close to him it was becoming clear that new threats were undermining his health.

He told the BBC World Service last month of three 'brushes with death,' including bacteria appearing in his blood stream 'virtually destroying the immune system, destroying the red cells and wreaking havoc in the body'. Antibiotics saved him.

He said: 'I am now nine and a half years post-injury, but due to ageing as well as a number of other factors in the last year, I now face a number of health issues which have not plagued me before.'" [Telegraph UK]

New enemies on the battlefield. Weary and aging from his brave fight against the spinal injury and paralysis, his resistance must have gone down, and virulent bacteria saw this as an opportunity to defeat him. Here is another account of his battles:

"During our hourlong conversation less than two weeks ago, Reeve ruefully admitted that 'it isn't always easy to remain upbeat' when faced with a range of health problems --- beyond the enormous challenges of dealing with his paralysis.

"'Those bad infections have, frankly, been very dangerous,' said Reeve. 'One in particularly was especially frightening.... it was caused by an abrasion on my left hip. I think it happened when I was on an exercise bike. These things start as nothing special, but in this case it developed into a strep infection --- and that gets serious, because it becomes so difficult to throw that off.'" [Chicago Sun-Times]

It was in May 1995 when Reeve was taking part in a cross-country event in Culpeper, Virginia, when his horse hesitated at a jump and threw him off. He landed head first and fractured the uppermost vertebrae in his spine. He became paralyzed ever since.

"When he awoke in hospital and discovered he was paralysed from the neck down, he said to his wife: 'Maybe we should let me go.'

"In his autobiography, Still Me, he explained that it was her response that gave him the will to live. She said: 'You're still you and I love you.'" [Scotsman]

And fought on, he did. He had to overcome a lot with the paralysis caused by his injury.

"The accident's power over him was diminishing, he said, as his ventilator sucked and hissed. He no longer snapped awake in the quiet hours, forced to confront, all over again, the fact that he had no sensation from the neck down. He paid no attention as his nurse drained the contents of a tube hidden in his trouser-leg into a black bottle. But learning to live with his paralysis wasn't the same as resigning himself to it. 'I've still never had a dream that I'm disabled,' he said. 'Never.' " [Guardian Unlimited]

Almost miraculously, his doctors were amazed with his motor improvements which were achieved through intense physical therapy. He was able to regain the movement of several fingers, and some muscles in his arms, along with a degree of sensation. For him, this meant a world of happiness:

"'It means I can feel my kids' touch,'" he told me when we met, a little over two years ago. 'It makes all the difference in the world.'" [Guardian Unlimited]

In addition, he spearheaded an intensive programme of research, public talks and political lobbying for stem-cell research. He was very passionate about his crusade:

"Reeve frequently spoke of his dismay that politics had got in the way of scientific progress, but that in itself was an unavoidably political position, and he was unusually scathing in propounding it. 'We've had a severe violation of the separation of church and state in the handling of what to do about this emerging technology,' he said. 'There are religious groups --- the Jehovah's Witnesses, I believe --- who think it's a sin to have a blood transfusion. Well, what if the president for some reason decided to listen to them, instead of the Catholics, which is the group he really listens to in making his decisions about embryonic stem cell research?' A few days after our interview, he issued a statement apologising if he had offended Catholics. But there was no doubting the intensity of his anger." [Guardian Unlimited]

He fought a good fight. He might have lost, but his struggle will always serve as an inspiration to people who are suffering a similar fate.

In the end, this life offers a lot of ironies and surprises. I have this theory that Chris Reeve must have been pressured by the deadline he set to himself that he must walk by the time he was 50.

"He had vowed, controversially, to walk again by the age of 50. 'I want things to happen quickly," he said recently. 'I certainly want to benefit within my lifetime. I don't want to get out of this wheelchair at the age of 75 .... I'm not willing to resign myself to being an advocate for research that will benefit people only after I'm gone. I'm not that noble.'" [Guardian Unlimited]

He must have worked real intensely with his exercises and accidentally got that abrasion on his left hip.

Abrasions today, bed sores tomorrow. Bed sores today, sepsis tomorrow. And when it comes to sepsis, even the best antibiotics and doctors will find it difficult to help you.

Goodbye, Superman. My prayers are with you.

You will be missed.

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