While en route to visit his son in Barcelona, Dr. Robert Grossfeld, professor of zoology and physiology and member of the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biologyin the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, passed the flight time reading the book Nothing is Impossible: Reflections on a New Life, by actor Christopher Reeve. The follow-up to his autobiographical Still Me, Nothing is Impossible is Reeve’s nine-chapter account of how his life evolved after he suffered a spinal cord injury in a 1995 horseback-riding accident and how he has adjusted to his paralysis, treatments and ongoing challenges, both physical and mental. It also presents Reeve’s views as an advocate for increased research toward repair of spinal cord injury.
Grossfeld was immediately inspired: “When I finished the book, I wanted to jump off the plane and teach a seminar on nerve regeneration.”
That was certainly possible.
Grossfeld has served as chairman of the Honors Committee in the CALS Honors Program and as coordinator of its seminars. Soon he was pulling together the parameters of the course, and “Spinal Cord Regeneration” became one of nine 398-H seminar topics choices for spring 2003.
“Neuroscience is my research focus. I’ve been interested in nerve regeneration for years,” says Grossfeld. His intention was that the seminar examine the physical and emotional difficulties created by spinal injury, recent encouraging approaches towards repairing degenerative disorders of the spinal cord and brain, and political and social issues that affect implementation of new advances. He particularly wanted to emphasize that consequences of spinal cord injury are extensive beyond impairing locomotion.
Reeve’s book was the perfect place to start.
What Grossfeld didn’t expect, however, is that the students would take Reeve’s title so seriously that they would confidently invite him to speak to one of their classes — and that they would succeed.
On April 24, 2003, Reeve conversed long distance for nearly
an hour with the students in Grossfeld’s seminar.
“One was how well the group of 12 students bonded,” he says. “The second was when they said, ‘Let’s invite Christopher Reeve to talk to us!’”
The students composed a letter to Reeve inviting him to visit the campus for a forum on spinal cord repair or at least to allow them to arrange a teleconference or exchange e-mail, and one of the students, Lindsay Robinson, volunteered to track him down. She ultimately made contact with his assistant. Various communications resulted in the scheduling of the teleconference.
Meanwhile Grossfeld had the students each submit five questions, which the class ranked and pared down to 18. When the call came, Robinson asked the first question, followed by each seminar member asking at least one, till Trent Bishop’s last question and closing remarks ended the session.
The questions ranged from biomedical and political (“How can research and politics find a happy medium in dealing with stem cell use and funding?” from Cindi Riggsbee) to personal (“What is your main motivation when you get up each morning?” from Becky Keener) to professional (“What theatrical/artistic/literary projects do you have in mind for the future?” from Tyler Allen).
“That Mr. Reeve would speak with the students, and that he could speak so articulately about a variety of issues, illustrates his strength of character, intellect and passion for energizing young people,” says Grossfeld. “That he could speak at all reflects the dramatic progress in his quest to recover from the crushing neck injury that he suffered.”
As Reeve conversed with the students, he revealed messages of hope for spinal cord research, indicated that legislation and funding are critical, and expressed his belief that therapeutic stem cell research should move forward, Grossfeld says, “and also his hope that students like them would become doctors and make a difference.”
At the same time, the students seemed to take away lasting inspiration.
One was biological sciences major Jon Lutz of Newton, who plans to become an optometrist. “The Christopher Reeve interview was by far the most exciting part of the seminar. I learned from that interview more of a life lesson than any book could teach me,” he says.
“What amazed me the most was how much of a family man he is,” Lutz says of Reeve. “His love and dedication towards his family was unbelievable. He shared a story of how the night of the interview was his son’s first Little League game of the season and how, instead of doing breathing exercises like he should, he was going to go to his son’s game. That showed that no matter how busy and hectic and turned around your life can get, that nothing should get more attention than your family. He showed that no matter what happened, his family was going to be at the top of his list, even over exercises to improve his breathing.”
Michael Harris, a rising senior in microbiology from Roxboro, says, “Christopher Reeve told us basically to figure out what we are passionate about and go out and find it. His strong will, courage and determination along with his words of advice were most memorable.”
Junior Heather Morgan of Asheville, a biochemistry major/genetics minor degree candidate, hopes to ultimately attend pharmacy school. “By reading Christopher Reeve’s book and speaking with him, I learned that with dedication and strength one can attain almost anything,” she says. “With a willingness to work and research, more things are possible than some people believe to be true.”
So inspired were Morgan and Harris that they created a Web site posting the information the students uncovered in their research on spinal cord injury. The site, “Spinal Cord Regeneration and Research,” is at http://ceres.cals.ncsu.edu/spinal-cord/.
“Speaking to Christopher Reeve and building the Web site were incredible,” says Morgan. “I not only got the opportunity to talk with someone famous but got to create a production of my own through this research. It was empowering and made me feel as though I was making a small difference or contribution to the world of spinal cord repair.”
The site also links users to the seminar paper produced by the group. “Repair of Spinal Cord Injury” is a 30-page compilation and summary of current available information about spinal cord injury, repair and research. As they put it in their concluding remarks, “the several promising avenues of research towards a cure for SCI” mean that “what was once thought to be impossible moves to the realm of possible.”
(Additional information can be found on the Web site for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, http://www.apacure.com.)
There may be more to come from the group. In the proposal stage is an introductory course on the topic for honors students, to be taught by three of the seminar students — Ryan Rieser, Trent Bishop and Courtney Bass — with Grossfeld’s assistance. Teaching this course will constitute their honors teaching project.
As with the seminar, among the emphases of the course will be that “the deleterious consequences of spinal injury are much more widespread than paralysis of locomotion, affecting virtually all organ systems,” Grossfeld says. “This needs to be appreciated to improve the quality of life for spinal injury patients.”
Equally important, he says, is increased awareness that “achieving the goals of improved repair of spinal injury and rehabilitation of patients will require a concerted effort among patients, scientists, politicians, the health care system and tax-paying citizens to bring the most promising advancements to fruition.
“Through 30-plus years of research and Mr. Reeve’s remarkable progress, it is now known that spinal cord cells are capable of multiplying and regenerating under suitable conditions,” Grossfeld says. “Much research and clinical testing remain to be done, stimulated by hope that spinal cords may one day be fixable.”
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