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Christopher Reeve's Former Doctor Talks About His Former Patient

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," Oct. 11, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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TONY SNOW, GUEST HOST:   In the "Back of the Book" Segment, actor Christopher Reeve (search ) died last night at the age of 52 after going into cardiac arrest at his home in New York.  The "Superman" star may be best known for turning his personal tragedy into a public crusade.

After Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback-riding accident nine years ago, he became a vocal advocate for spinal cord research, including stem cell research (search), which is a campaign issue this year.

Dr. John McDonald is the director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at the Washington University School of Medicine (search).  He treated Mr. Reeve and joins us from St. Louis.

Dr. McDonald, first, I want to talk a little about Christopher Reeve personally because his story is extraordinary.  This is a guy who, by all measures, probably should have died, probably should have been stricken, and yet he continued through exertions of will and muscle and everything else to make a recovery that was, by all measures, pretty spectacular, wasn't it?

JOHN MCDONALD, M.D., REEVE'S FORMER DOCTOR:  That's exactly right.

SNOW:  Talk to us a little bit about what — one of the things you did because he was determined to walk, and, as a result, there were a series of exercises that were conducted with his immobile limbs, so — in anticipation of the time that may come when he'd be able to walk.  Why don't you talk a little bit not only about the course of treatment, but how it may have helped Christopher Reeve?

MCDONALD:  Sure.  Yes, I began working with Christopher Reeve in the middle of 1999, really out of information that he was having an excessive number of complications and that there was additional rehabilitative strategies which we believed might benefit him.

We never knew how much recovery he could get, but what the data showed is someone with that severe of an injury who hasn't recovered really anything in the first couple of years, there is really no human being who had ever recovered any substantial function thereafter.  So all bets were off...

SNOW:  Yes, but...

MCDONALD:  ... and about a year...

SNOW:  ... he recovered a little function, didn't he?

MCDONALD:  That's right.  So, about a year into the therapy, he actually started regaining function, and he regained about 70 percent of his ability to feel throughout his body and about 20 percent of his motor function.

So he went from five years after the injury not having any sensation or motor movement below the neck to being able to feel localized touch and pain throughout his entire body, as well as to move most of the joints in his body, something that was previously unheard of.

SNOW:  The other thing that he gained was an ability to breathe unassisted for increasing spans of time?

MCDONALD:  That's right.  So both — you know, he began to recover the ability to breathe better and better off the ventilator for longer periods of time, and then, in 2003, an FES system was implanted to pace his diaphragm to allow him to breathe even for greater periods off the ventilator, much as you would pace the heart.

SNOW:  You talked earlier about the series of complications.  We are told that there was some — a bed sore basically that turned into a bad infection, and that killed him.  How does that happen?

MCDONALD:  Well, you know, it's not entirely clear what the cause of death was, and that will take some time to sort that out.  But, basically, what happens — and it emphasizes this idea that, although we're searching for cures and these sorts of things, that it's still common things that end up killing people, and complications in — major medical complications are still a big problem for individuals with spinal cord injury, even under the best of circumstances.

So skin breakdown occurs because they can't adequately feel when the blood flow's stopping to that area of the body, and, within minutes, they can break skin breakdown, and then that could become a large wound which can take years to heal.  Other problems, blood clots, infections of the bowel bone and bladder can occur, and these can all just break out of normal and cause a death...

SNOW:  Very quickly...

MCDONALD:  ... and it's likely that those events, you know, contributed to Christopher Reeve's death.

SNOW:  He's an amazing guy, right?

MCDONALD:  Yes, he is just an amazing human being who really dramatically has changed this field and, I think, the hope for many individuals who are suffering from similar sorts of paralysis.

SNOW:  Dr. John McDonald, thanks for joining us.

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