To all appearances, Christopher Reeve is not moving. His hands lie in their black leather rests like fish on platters. Black straps hold them in place. A seat belt holds his midsection in place but is needed only when a spasm threatens to jolt his body from the chair. Otherwise he and the chair are one--the 6-ft. 4-in. frame of the man conforming to the contours of the black metal contraption that, with its array of tubes, dials, wheels and wires, looks to be part hospital, part tractor.
This is a Quickie P300, the Porsche of sip-and-puff wheelchairs. It has six areas of command. If Reeve wishes to go forward or backward or to the left or the right or fast or slow, he sips air from or blows air into a plastic straw at varying strengths. When he shifts his sitting angle between straight up and laid back, the chair makes the sound of an old European elevator or a convertible top closing.
He appears least mobile when viewed from the rear. Only the top of his head is visible above the black head support, which resembles a boxer's headgear. Below that, a portion of his shoulders shows above the metal ventilator box, which looks like a robot's backpack and is carried behind the chair on a metal shelf. The translucent tracheostomy tube (trach) leads from the box to the slit in his trachea below his Adam's apple. When he speaks, he must catch the ventilator on the outward breath, finish one sentence and get at least a word into the following sentence to signal his listener that he has something more to say.
"You're sitting here fighting depression," he says. "You're in shock. You look out the window, and you can't believe where you are. And the thought that keeps going through your mind is, 'This can't be my life. There's been a mistake.'"
He is usually dressed in a T shirt, chinos and high tops, which, like his hands, are propped up on rests. One notices how clean the sneakers are. His color is good, his hair a thick mixture of old brown and new gray, his eyes true blue. Indeed, his eyes are so alert and intent, his actor's face so distractingly alive, that when one's own eyes rise to meet it, the reality of his condition is obliterated. At these moments one realizes that his mobility has been restricted only from the neck down.
Practically from the day he stopped moving, Reeve has not stopped moving. Thrown from his horse at the third jump during a riding competition in Culpeper, Virginia, on Memorial Day last year, he became a "C1-C2"; the designation refers to a paralyzing injury to the area between the first and second cervical vertebrae, between the neck and the brain stem. It's called the "hangman's injury" because the C1-C2 break is what happens when the trapdoor opens and the noose snaps tight. He says, "It was as if I'd been hanged, cut down and sent to rehab."
After a few months in three hospitals, Reeve came to terms with his altered state. Determined to help both his own cause and that of all the 250,000 paralyzed people in the U.S., he launched a one-man publicity and lobbying campaign, with increasingly effective results.