Chris Reeve Channeled Personal Pain into Public Good, and So Do Other Celebrities
By Steve Ryfle and Stacy Jenel Smith
There has never been a more moving moment at the Academy Awards than in 1996, when Christopher Reeve was revealed, alone on that vast stage in his wheelchair, to address the Hollywood crowd and a television audience of billions. It was an act of enormous bravery, considering that Reeve faced the risk of world-wide humiliation if he could not speak because his tracheostomy tube was out of alignment, or if his body had spasmed - as indeed, we learned later, it had done just before the curtain rose. Traveling and being in crowds were risks for him as well.
But he did it. And, oh! What inspiration he gave countless paralyzed and otherwise impaired people that night!
Reeve's many, many brave moments and his determined labors on behalf of spinal cord injury research and rehabilitation - his Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act is soon to go before congress; his Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (www.christopherreeve.org) will continue his work -- are reasons the death of the one-time Superman has brought tears to the eyes of admirers around the world.
He was one of the celebrities who turned personal tragedy into a miraculous public good. There are, actually, quite a few such souls, and the world is blessed to have them.
Former "Starsky & Hutch" star Paul Michael Glaser, now a director, has carried on the battle against pediatric AIDS in the decade since his wife Elizabeth, who championed the cause, died of the disease in 1994. The Glaser family's tragic story begain in 1981, when Elizabeth received a tainted blood transfusion while pregnant with daughter Ariel. It wasn't until four years later, when the girl became sick, that it was learned that Elizabeth, Ariel and the Glasers' then-unborn son Jake were all infected; only Paul remained unaffected by the disease. After Ariel, 7, died in 1988, Elizabeth lobbied Congress and federal funding for pediatric AIDS was increased. That year, she co-founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which has has since raised hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money for research and treatment. Today, Paul Michael Glaser is honorary chairman of the renamed Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (www.pedaids.org), and son Jake also champions the cause.
Fran Drescher survived a battle with uterine cancer, and now is speaking out loud and strong on women's health issues. Her 2002 memoir, "Cancer Schmancer" was praised for its frankness and has been called an inspiration to cancer victims. Drescher has been stumping for increased funding for cancers that most affect women. "I am trying to change legislation to not only improve funding for research for cancer and other diseases, but also to broaden the scope of insured basic women's health care.to make cancer screening tests standard." As she told us, "For me, there is a silver lining of cancer. Being a survivor has given a purpose to my life and an importance to my fame that works in astounding ways I could never have imagined."
After his only son Scott died of an accidental drug overdose in 1978, Paul Newman began dedicating enormous amounts of time and energy to creating and supporting charities. In 1980 he established the Scott Newman Center (www.scottnewmancenter.org), dedicated to preventing substance abuse through education. Later, the philanthropist movie star founded his The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (www.holeinthewallgang.org), a nonprofit residential summer camp in northeastern Connecticut, attended by more than 1,000 children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, from the U.S. and abroad, each year. His Newman's Own food products, with all the after-tax profits donated to educational and charitable causes, has given away more than $150 million to date.
In 1998, Michael J. Fox publicly disclosed that he had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for seven years. Two years later he retired from the sitcom "Spin City" and started the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (www.michaeljfox.org), which has quickly become the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's research. As of August 2004, the Foundation had funded more than $46 million to support more than 150 research projects in 12 countries. During the presidential campaign, Fox has voiced his support for Democrat John Kerry and continued his advocacy for stem-cell research. He continues to inspire others suffering with the disease, even as he maintains a highly successful acting career, playing the voice of "Stuart Little" and other roles.
John McGinley plays persnickety Dr. Perry Cox on "Scrubs," but in real life he's the proud and loving father of Max, a 7-year-old with Down Syndrome, a condition affecting 350,000 Americans. McGinley is also the 2004 spokesman for the National Down Syndrome Society's Buddy Walk program (www.buddywalk.org), which organizes walk-a-thon type events in communities across the country. Last year, Buddy Walks raised $2.5 million for NDSS, and McGinley calls them "a day of inclusion and empowerment ... to celebrate people's abilities and not their disabilities. It's really about lifting up families and children with special needs."
Other celebrities have channeled the pain of personal tragedy into support for others. After his first son was diagnosed with autism in the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone founded the Stallone Fund for Autism. Since defeating breast cancer in the early 1990s, Olivia Newton-John has been an outspoken proponent of early detection, and promotes a device called the Liv-Kit that improves women's ability to perform self-examinations. Julia Sweeney turned her recovery from cervical cancer into a successful book and one-woman show called "God Said, 'Ha!" using her sense of humor to heal herself and inspire other women to seek early detection and treatment.
In the wake of Christopher Reeve's death, his family asked that donations be made to his Foundation. Working for others' welfare would be a fitting tribute as well.