Two lives leave disparate legacies

Published in the November 2004 issue of BioMechanics

By Jordana Bieze Foster

Two famous men died of heart attacks on Oct. 10. Both had piercing blue eyes and had been blessed with athletic physiques. One became a professional athlete, the other found sport a pleasant diversion from his work as a professional actor.

The actor will be remembered for never giving up on his body, even after the accident that left him a quadriplegic, and for the small but remarkable functional gains--the ability to breathe unaided, to feel a pinprick, to move a finger--that caused a generation of researchers to rethink what they thought they knew about spinal cord injury. The professional athlete will be remembered for admitting that he cheated, and for having cheated in a way that took his body for granted.

The actor's body failed him, in the end, succumbing to systemic infection that had arisen from a pressure ulcer that had failed to heal. The professional athlete, in the end, failed his own body, subjecting it for years to the ravages of anabolic steroids, cocaine, and other drugs.

At one time, before the world knew about the steroids or the cocaine addiction, the professional athlete was an inspiration for his fans, proof of the rewards that could come from hard work. The actor, for his part, gave hope to thousands of SCI patients and their loved ones not just in the example that he set but in his use of his personal connections and his private funds to take SCI research to a new level.

I happen to know one of these patients, a good friend whose plans to paint his house on a sunny Labor Day weekend went horribly awry when he fell off a ladder from about 20 feet up, leaving him with no sensory or motor control from the waist down.

This was a guy who was happiest on a bike, whether it was mountain biking with his more reckless buddies (including my husband) or trekking 162 miles across the state of Massachusetts to raise money for cancer patients during the annual Pan-Mass Challenge (which is how he met his wife).

My friend is 30 years old; he and his wife are expecting their first child in February. As recently as five years ago, someone in his situation would have been given no hope of ever regaining any sensation or motor control in his legs, much less ever walking again. But thanks in very large part to one of the men who died on Oct. 10, who before his death had himself been able to walk with assistance in a pool of water, it isn't out of the realm of possibility for my friend to believe that someday--maybe five years from now, maybe 10, but someday--he will be able to walk again.

Such a long-term goal might not seem to be much of an inspiration, but I know that for one guy who's just traded his bike for a wheelchair, it really is. He knows he won't walk any time soon. But he also has reason to be optimistic about the future. And that makes all the difference in the world.

One of the famous men who died on Oct. 10 once was associated with the phrase "most valuable." But I don't think I have to tell you he's not the one who would get my vote. Copyright 2008 Jordana Foster – 24 Kirkland Dr, Stow, MA – Email: – Fax: (815) 346-5239