On May 27, 1995, actor Christopher Reeve was thrown off of his horse in a competition, landing head first. The fall damaged his spinal cord and fractured his top two vertebrae, disconnecting his skull and spine. As a result, he was paralyzed from the neck down. After being rushed to a nearby hospital, he was then flown by a helicopter to the University of Virginia Medical Center, about 50 miles away. Reeve was unconscious for five days and when he finally gained consciousness, he discovered that he may never walk again nor move a body part. In his autobiography, Reeve revealed that he wanted to give up and thought of suicide. He mouthed to his wife, Dana, “Maybe we should let me go.” She responded with, “I will support whatever you want to do…I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You’re still you. And I love you.” After that, Reeve crossed out his thoughts of giving up his life.
Reeve aggressively began recovery. He trained his body to be strong and believed that if a cure was ever found and he could walk again that his body would be strong enough to adapt. Frustrated by the slow pace of stem cell research in the United States, Reeve traveled to Israel to receive the best treatment for his situation. And according to him, Israel at the time, was a leading country on spinal cord injury research.
In the United States, Reeve created the Christopher and Dana Reeve foundation to speed up medical research and to use grants to help disabled people. Later, the Foundation invented technology that helped several paralyzed patients walk again. Reeve also co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center which was devoted to research on spinal cord injuries and later became one of the leading research centers in the world. Besides increasing research, Reeve also advocated for changes in the law. He urged Californian voters to pass a Proposition to establish an institution that regulated and funded stem cell research. The Proposition was successfully passed in 2004.
At the 68th Academy Award, Reeve appeared on stage, in a wheelchair, to address the importance of Hollywood’s social responsibility. He said, “When I was a kid, my friends and I went to the movies just for fun, but then we saw Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, started thinking the madness of nuclear destruction. Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones taught us about race relations, and we began to realize that films could deal with social issues…” Reeve emphasized Hollywood’s power to inform and bring change, not just to focus on box office success. He urged the Hollywood community to remember how influential and necessary its work could be.
Reeve was lucky because he was Christopher Reeve. Unlike many other people, he had the relationships, the money and the resources to receive the best treatment and care. And because he was not like most people, he used his fame and power to bring change. He brought awareness to his condition, suffered by many others less powerful and less resourceful than him; and successfully pushed for change.
Twenty years later, last Sunday, at the 88th Academy Awards, actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech reminded me of Reeve’s message. DiCaprio said, “Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world…2015 [was] the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real…we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating…for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this…”
Today, I would like to challenge you all to ask yourself-what is your social responsibility? In my younger days, I was filled with enthusiasm, energy and optimism. With age, experience and uncontrollable setbacks, or perhaps a more accurate word, reality, I had become less positive and had also witnessed this change in the people around me. Awakened by the messages from DiCaprio and Reeve, I challenge you to re-discover that compassion you once had, and ask yourself, what is your social responsibility? Thank you and good night.