Early in the afternoon on May 27, 1995, actor Christopher Reeve, best known as the star of four Superman movies, prepared for the cross-country portion of his equestrian event in Culpepper, Virginia.
Reeve had learned to ride horses for his part in the 1985 adaptation of Anna Karenina and, as with all his extracurricular activities – flying, skiing, scuba diving and sailing – he plunged himself into the endeavor, pushing well past the point that separated the weekend hobbyists from the competitive-minded athlete.
As he eyeballed the jumps and mapped out his strategy, Reeve harbored some trepidation as to how his horse, Eastern Express, would respond to parts of the course. He knew that caution could be problematic when riding a large, fast-moving animal, but he felt a strong connection with Eastern Express and believed his preparation would leave him well-positioned to potentially win the event before jetting off to Ireland for his next film.
Reeve landed headfirst after being thrown from his horse
Just after 3:00 p.m., Reeve left the starting gate astride his thoroughbred. The first two jumps came and went with no problem, but as they closed in on the third jump over a zig-zag shaped fence, Eastern Express suddenly and inexplicably hit the brakes.
Reeve kept moving forward, the momentum lifting him clear off the horse. His hands wrapped up in the bridle and reins, he was unable to break his fall, and the full load of his 215-pound frame crashed headfirst into the top rail.
Still conscious, though he later had no memory of the incident, Reeve sputtered, "I can't breathe." He also couldn't move — the impact had fractured his first cervical vertebra and damaged the second, his head barely held in place by his neck muscles.
Paramedics acted quickly by stabilizing Reeve's head and squeezing air into his body before brain damage could set in. He was then airlifted to the University of Virginia Hospital, where doctors successfully completed an operation to reattach his skull to the spinal column.
Reeve's life was saved, but the battle was just beginning, as the actor faced a likely fate in which he would never be able to feel anything below his neck, breathe without help from a respirator or undertake any physical activity on his own again.
He considered suicide before committing himself to rehabilitation
His health in a fragile state, 43-year-old Reeve came down with pneumonia, a urinary tract infection and ulcers in the days after his accident. After being transferred to New Jersey's Kessler Rehabilitation Center, he had an adverse reaction to a medication that sent him into shock and briefly stopped his heart.
The physical and emotional anguish was so overwhelming that Reeve contemplated suicide. In his 1998 memoir, Still Me, he revealed that his wife Dana was the one who talked him back from the metaphorical ledge. "I will support you whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision," she told him. "But 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."
Regaining a sense of purpose, Reeve devoted himself to learning everything he could about his injuries and approaching physical rehabilitation with the same zeal that had once fueled his enthusiasm for outdoor activities. He made a celebrated appearance at the Academy Awards in March 1996, and a few months later he was sailing once again in a regatta to benefit the disabled.
That year he also established the Christopher Reeve Foundation, an entity that paired with the American Paralysis Association in 1999 to become the leading organization for research and advancement in a field once called "the graveyard of neurobiology." From his home in Bedford, New York, with his wife and a team of aides at his side, he aimed to reset expectations for what a quadriplegic could accomplish, vowing to walk again by his 50th birthday.
Reeve also found a way to tend to his old creative impulses. He made his directing debut with the 1997 drama In the Gloaming, which picked up five Emmy nominations, and he returned to the screen the following year in an update of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, for which he won a Screen Actor's Guild Award.
Reeve regained some movement and underwent an operation to improve his breathing
Reeve never met his goal of getting back on his feet, but he made what amounted to near-miraculous progress. He regained some sensation in his body by 2000, giving him the thrill of feeling contact with Dana and their young son, Will. He also soon realized he could move his legs while lying on his back, and discovered a greater range of motion while immersed in a swimming pool.
In spring 2003, Reeve underwent an experimental operation to have an electrical-stimulation device implanted in his diaphragm, enabling him to set aside his respirator for hours at a time.
Continuing with his artistic efforts, Reeve published another book of reflections, 2002's Nothing Is Impossible, and in 2004 he directed A&E's The Brooke Ellison Story, about a paralyzed girl who went on to graduate from Harvard University. All the while, he continued his dogged pursuit of medical breakthroughs in the areas of spinal injuries and paralysis, seeking out innovative doctors around the world and the approval of stem-cell research in the United States.
However, his seemingly irrepressible drive wasn't enough to overcome the ever-present medical dangers. After a pressure wound became infected in the fall of 2004, Reeve went into cardiac arrest and lapsed into a coma. His decade-long battle came to an end on October 10, 2004, at the age of 52.
Once an actor who found himself typecast by the career-defining role of Superman, Reeve ultimately was able to "escape the cape." His final performance as an activist and inspiration for the disabled proved more superhuman than anything that could be dreamed up for the big screen.