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Dana Reeve Leaves Legacy as Research Advocate


We learned today of the death of Dana Reeve from lung cancer. She was 44 years old. She was the widow of actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed after a horseback riding accident in 1995 and died in 2004. Dana Reeve's own diagnosis with lung cancer came less than a year after her husband's death. She was known for her work as an advocate for research into paralysis. She took over as chair of the Christopher Reeve Foundation after he died. Susan Howley is executive vice president of the foundation.

SUSAN HOWLEY: Dana took a very, very great interest in the quality of life for people living with spinal cord injury. Whereas Chris was really focused on the science, Dana came at spinal cord injury from the perspective of the caregiver, the wife and the mother of Chris's son. And so her interests were really in doing everything that she could to enhance the day to day living of people with spinal cord injuries. She actually was the vision behind the foundation's quality of life grants program.

BLOCK: And what sorts of grants have those been? What sorts of projects have been funded with that?

HOWLEY: Well, to give you an example, a quality of life grant might go to a camp for children to render it wheelchair accessible. One grant that Dana was particularly fond of was given to the Crotched Mountain School to build an accessible tree house. So these were the kinds of things that really sparked her interest and her passion.

BLOCK: Was she also involved in, say, promoting stem cell research and things that would help --

HOWLEY: She was. She became a wonderful advocate for research and for stem cell research after Chris had died. She picked up that mantle very willingly and, I might add, very, very capably.

BLOCK: Did she talk to you about the lessons that she learned through her experience, nearly a decade, of living with her husband who'd had this injury?

HOWLEY: Well she never talked to me personally about it. I think it's safe to say that she lived those years as Chris's wife after his injury with such grace and compassion and with an unfailingly good sense of humor and with a wonderful perspective. And so many of us remember her talking about the life after spinal cord injury and the fact that there were still so many unexpected and unanticipated joys that came to her and to Chris and to Will after his injury. And I think that in that sense she's really quite an extraordinary role model for all of us.

BLOCK: Will is their son. He's now 13, I believe.


BLOCK: You mentioned the joys that came to them. What were some of those joys that we might not be thinking of?

HOWLEY: I, you know, my sense was always just the fact that they could still be together as a family, that they could still share intellectually and emotionally all the things that they had shared prior to Chris's injury. I mean, there's that famous line, after he was injured, where Dana evidently said to him, But you're still you.

And that, to me, is a very profound message, because spinal cord injury really doesn't change the essence of a person. It changes, yes, their physical capabilities, but what makes us individuals remains intact. And I think that that's something that they both appreciated and built on magnificently for the ten years that he had after his injury.

BLOCK: Well, Susan Howley, I'm sorry for your loss. Thanks very much for talking with us.

HOWLEY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Susan Howley is the executive vice president and director of research for the Christopher Reeve Foundation. She was talking about Dana Reeve who took over as chair of the foundation after her husband died.

Dana Reeve died yesterday of lung cancer, though she was not a smoker. About one in five women diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers, according to the American Cancer Society. Just a few months ago, Dana Reeve had said her prognosis was looking better all the time and that she was beating the odds. But a friend tells us she grew very sick within the last two weeks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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