Christopher Reeve: Heart Failure from Muscle Loss

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Christopher Reeve was a BAFTA-award-winning movie actor best known as the 6’4″ athletic Superman and his bumbling counterpart, Clark Kent. He was also a Screen Actors Guild Award-winning television actor and a Golden Globe Award nominee. In his late 30s, he started taking horse riding lessons and worked his way up to training five to six days a week for horseback riding competitions. At age 42, while competing in an equestrian event in Culpepper, Virginia, he was thrown off his horse when the horse stopped abruptly at a jump. He was thrown forward off the horse with his helmeted head hitting the ground first. The impact literally detached his head from his body by breaking the upper bones of his spine and severing his spinal cord at the neck. This left him with no feeling and no muscle control and he was not even able to breathe.

Surgery stabilized his neck but did not help him regain his ability to control his muscles or breathe on his own. He became a quadriplegic who needed to use a wheelchair and a portable ventilator for the rest of his life. This led him to become a tireless advocate for people with spinal cord injuries and for embryonic stem cell research to treat it, and he founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation and Reeve-Irvine Research Center. At age 52, ten years after the accident, Reeve died of heart failure caused by his inability to use his skeletal muscles.

Early Life and Film Career
Reeve was born in 1952 in New York City to wealth and lineage. His family included prominent 17th-century Americans, and his grandfather was the CEO of Prudential Financial for more than 25 years. His parents divorced when he was four and he went to elite private schools. His acting career started when he was nine and starred in The Yeomen of the Guard. He went to college at Cornell and spent most of his time acting in plays. He left Cornell in his senior year and convinced his college advisors to let him count a year at Juilliard as his senior year, so he was able to be graduated from Cornell with a B.A. degree in 1974. After college, he went full time into the theater and, at age 22, he was mentored by Katherine Hepburn.

At age 26, he got his first role in a Hollywood film, winning an audition to play the lead in Superman. He was athletic but his muscles were too small, so he started a training program of running every morning followed by two hours of weightlifting and ninety minutes on the trampoline. He also piled on the meat and ate twice as much food as he normally did, going from 189 to 220 pounds. His role as Superman made him famous and the film was a major success, grossing more than $300 million and leading to three equally popular sequels. He was now so famous that he could pick and choose his roles in movies, television and the theater.

His Career as a Horseman
Reeve learned to ride for his role in Anna Karenina in 1985, and in 1994, at age 42, he bought a 12-year-old thoroughbred named Eastern Express. At a competition in Virginia in 1995, the horse missed a jump and Reeve fell and broke his neck. For the next few weeks, he hovered between life and death and was very depressed. Just before the operation to reattach his skull to his spine, the door to the intensive care unit opened and in walked a man in a blue surgical hat and a yellow surgical gown and thick glasses. Speaking in a thick Russian accent, the man announced that he was a proctologist here to do a rectal exam on him. It was Robin Williams.

In the months that followed his surgery, his breathing tube became disconnected several times and the nurses had to rush in to save his life. He learned to activate his powered wheelchair by blowing into a straw. Later he was able to move his left index finger, and electrodes attached to his hamstrings could stimulate his leg muscles to push on pedals. His greatest hope was from researchers in Israel who were working on stem cells to regenerate nerves, but this was not successful in his lifetime. Among his many activities to help paralyzed people, he acted in several films encouraging more research in treating muscle paralysis and was elected Chairman of the American Paralysis Association. He also directed several films and wrote two books. He used special exercise machines to keep his muscles from disappearing, but on October 9, 2004, ten years after he became paralyzed, his heart stopped beating and he died in heart failure.

How Inactivity Can Cause Heart Failure
Christopher Reeve was unable to use his muscles for ten years, so his heart suffered progressive weakening until it became too weak to pump blood to his brain and he died. You don’t have to be paralyzed; just spending too much time lying and sitting can cause heart failure.

Resistance exercise can increase muscle size and strength in older people. If you are not already doing strength-training exercise, first check with your doctor to make sure you do not have any condition that may be harmed by exercise. Then join a gym and ask for instructions on how to use the weight-training machines. Since lifting lighter weights is less likely to cause injuries, I recommend lifting lighter weights (about 50 percent of your maximum) with more repetitions. You gain almost the same muscle growth by lifting a lighter weight many times as you do by lifting a heavier weight fewer times (Science Daily, July 12, 2016). End the workout immediately if you feel severe pain or if you have pain that does not go away as soon as you stop lifting the weight. See Weight Lifting for Middle-Age and Beyond
How Inactivity Can Cause Heart Failure
Weak Heart Muscle Associated with Weak Skeletal Muscles

Christopher Reeve
September 25, 1952 -October 10, 2004