Dana Reeve returned to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for the first time since her husband, Christopher Reeve, passed away in October to renew the fight for research funding he began, leading the Spring Into Action rally outside of the Capitol.
Paralyzed after an accident during an equestrian event in 1995, Reeve quickly became a leading champion for those in similar conditions, serving as vice chairman for the National Organization on Disability and founding the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Dana Reeve has taken up the torch, vowing to raise both awareness and funding.
“We certainly miss [Christopher] a lot,” Reeve said in an interview. “I think about him all the time. I’m also energized by our time together, and the gift of the years that we had since his injury. He could have died that day, and instead he made such an impact in pushing so avidly for scientific research.”
The army of wheelchairs you may have noticed Tuesday are part of the continuation of Reeve’s legacy. In conjunction with Cure Paralysis Now and the Miami Project, the CRPF and more than 100 wheelchair users converged on the Capitol to urge passage of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, which was introduced in the 108th Congress and will be reintroduced this session.
“It’s going to be an exciting day,” Reeve said when asked about Tuesday’s schedule. “There’ll be a lot of folks in wheelchairs. … We’re reintroducing a bill first introduced in the last Congress.”
According to Michael Manganiello, senior vice president for government relations at the CRPF, the Paralysis Act has a number of different goals. In addition to raising funding to find a cure for paralysis, Manganiello and Reeve hope to raise awareness of complications related to paralysis. Christopher Reeve died from complications that arose from a pressure wound, a common complication for people living with paralysis.
“It has to do with preventing secondary complications,” Manganiello said. Helping fight problems related to paralysis can include programs involving “treadmill therapy, assisted weight therapy, aqua therapy, etc. Keeping people healthier and off the dole. The paralyzed community is very minimalized. They all want to be working and paying taxes.”
In order to reduce that minimalization, raising visibility is key — hence the rally on the Capitol’s West Front. Reeve opened the event and speakers included doctors, activists and Congressmen, including Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a co-sponsor of the bill and the only Member of Congress who uses a wheelchair.
Langevin, who was injured almost a quarter-century ago, said he was “very pleased to see such a big crowd in attendance” on Tuesday. He also had nothing but kind words to say about the Reeves.
“I’ve heard of spinal cord research over the course of my life, and I can say that the real hope for a cure did not being in earnest until [Christopher] was willing to use his celebrity to advocate for research. [Dana] has clearly taken over his position, his public role and his personal fight.”
Langevin is optimistic the bill will pass this year. “I think it’s gaining more and more support,” he said, adding, “I know that oftentimes good ideas can take years to pass, and hopefully this is the year for the bill.”
The day before the rally, Manganiello said the group did “a civics 101 lesson” to teach supporters of the bill how to go to their Members and gain traction with the issue. “The elevators are going to be a mess, and that’s a good thing. This is the first lobbying day of its kind on the Hill.”
For Reeve, everything comes back to research funding. “For example, we want to get more funding for treadmill walking therapy. Chris participated in it, and he began regaining some function which had previously been considered completely impossible.” She emphasized that such therapies “are not a cure, but rehabilitation. You’re retraining the muscles, which are then retraining the brain. So some of the research is rehabilitative.”
Manganiello said “one of the things [Christopher Reeve] taught me is that if you can find common ground you can go forward.” This is one of the reasons that stem-cell research is not mentioned in the language of the bill. Indeed, in the talking points distributed to those lobbying their legislators on Tuesday, it is mentioned that “The CRPA does not include language in support of embryonic stem-cell research.”
The final talking point is the one that Reeve wishes to emphasize, however. “Much progress has been made, but there is still work to do to fully cure paralysis.”
“There’s a lot of research out there,” Reeve said. “We need the money to keep flowing.”