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Disabled researcher says Reeve inspired him to help others

LEXINGTON, Ky. — When Christopher Reeve died, Alexander Rabchevsky received e-mail and phone calls from friends and family across the nation, as if he had suffered a personal loss.

In a way, he had. Rabchevsky, who is paralyzed, said people with spinal cord injuries are a tightly knit group with a common understanding.

And the connection ran deeper than that. Rabchevsky has dedicated his life to helping others suffering from paralysis, just as Reeve did after a horse-riding accident.

While Reeve became one of the nation’s best-known advocates for the disabled, Rabchevsky became a researcher at the University of Kentucky working to improve the lives of paraplegics and quadriplegics.

Their lives intersected several times – including in 2000, when Reeve visited Kentucky to praise a state-created trust fund that has paid for much of Rabchevsky’s research.

Reeve died Oct. 10, reportedly of complications from an infection caused by a bedsore. Rabchevsky, 38, is now one of the few researchers in the nation studying a condition that can cause ailments such as bedsores to become deadly.

The assistant UK professor is a passionate researcher, colleagues say, inspiring those around him. In his office and on his computer are pictures of him standing and walking with the help of electrodes – similar to the ones implanted in Reeve’s diaphragm to help him breathe.

Before Rabchevsky was paralyzed, he said he was more athlete than scholar.

He played strong safety on the football team at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and earned just a 2.2 grade-point average in his first two years.

His life changed during a visit to the mountains of West Virginia in 1985, when he agreed to go on a joyride on a friend’s new motorcycle. The speeding cycle fell 75 feet into a ravine, his father, George, said.

The driver was not seriously injured, but Rabchevsky wasn’t wearing a helmet.

When Rabchevsky awoke in a hospital, he and his family were told that two of his vertebrae were broken and his spinal cord was crushed. He had lost feeling from the chest down.

“The dogma,” Rabchevsky said, “was that you couldn’t walk again.”

He wasn’t willing to accept that. As a student of biology, he knew that people were making discoveries about the central nervous system and advancing the science. He came up with a plan: “I’m going to get into the group that’s doing that.”

During his rehabilitation, Rabchevsky took correspondence courses to keep up with his studies. Then he went back to college, earning much better grades than before. Later came graduate school, marriage, a doctorate and postdoctoral work.

When it came time to look for a job, Rabchevsky chose UK, partly because the Kentucky Spinal Cord and Head Injury Research Trust dedicated fines for seat-belt violations and a surcharge on speeding tickets to pay for research at UK and the University of Louisville.

When the same program brought Rabchevsky and Reeve together at Kentucky’s General Assembly, they talked about the latest research.

Rabchevsky said Reeve, who broke his neck when he was thrown by a horse in 1995, inspired him not only as a champion for the cause of the disabled, but also in a more fundamental way.

“I was inspired by his just getting up every day,” Rabchevsky said.

He gradually got to know Reeve better, meeting him at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center in California in 2001 and taking part in conference calls with him there for the next three years. He said he remembers how Reeve’s voice flowed more smoothly after electrodes were implanted in his diaphragm.

Rabchevsky’s functional stimulation system includes an electronic chip under his skin, attached to wires and electrodes implanted into his legs, lower back and buttocks. Taped on top of his abdomen is a coil connected to a programmable electronic box, which is attached to what he calls the “bat belt” around his waist.

With this system, he defies what doctors once told him, standing while holding onto a board and walking with a walker.

“I can stand up and hold my wife,” Rabchevsky said.

Rabchevsky’s current research deals with “quality of life issues” that to many people are more important than walking, he said.

Rabchevsky also is studying autonomic dysreflexia, a potentially life-threatening condition caused by irritants below the level of injury, such as sunburn, ingrown toenails or bedsores. If left untreated, the condition can cause high blood pressure and even stroke.