08/07/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
DURING THE FIRST SEVERAL WEEKS that Dr. Marcaiee Sipski saw her famous new patient at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation he was, like most recent victims of spinal-cord injury, restricted to either his hospital bed or wheelchair. But in mid-July, Sipski walked into the physical-therapy gym to find him on a tilt-table turned semi-upright. "I was used to looking down at him. For the first time I had to look up," says Sipski. "He's really tall and has these huge, piercing, blue eyes. He looked like what I was used to seeing in the movies."
Sipski can be forgiven a momentary starstruck lapse. As medical director of the Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., the 34-year-old physiatrist—one of only about 4,000 specialists in the U.S. who treat patients suffering spinal-cord and brain injuries, as well as other problems involving physical impairment—is overseeing the treatment of actor Christopher Reeve, who fractured his first and second vertebrae in an equestrian accident May 27. Says Sipski: "When I read he had a fracture, I hoped there wasn't a spinal-cord injury."
Tragically, there was. Reeve, 42, was paralyzed from the neck down and required a respirator to breathe. On June 5 he underwent a 6-hour operation at the University of Virginia Medical Center in which doctors implanted a titanium rod to stabilize his head and neck. On June 28 he was flown by helicopter to Kessler, one of the few rehabilitation centers in the country equipped to deal with respirator-dependent quadriplegics.
Sipski immediately set about assembling a platoon of therapists—physical, occupational, vocational, speech, respiratory and recreational—who over the next five to nine months will help Reeve learn to function as well as his condition will allow. Dr. Craig Alexander, 38, Kessler's director of psychology and neuropsychology—and, incidentally, Sipski's boyfriend of seven years—meets with Reeve frequently to help him adjust emotionally to his condition. Reeve's wife, Dana Morosini, 34, and other members of his family also receive training in spinal trauma and how to deal with it.
"An injury like his impacts every system of the body," says Sipski. "There are so many potential complications. It can take years to adjust."
Such an adjustment requires enormous commitment from the patient. Reeve's day begins at 7 a.m., when he is fed breakfast, usually fruit, which he can chew and swallow himself. Afterward he has an hour of physical therapy in the gym, doing limited exercises to strengthen his neck and shoulder muscles, over which he has partial control. (A therapist also moves his arms and legs in order to maintain their flexibility.)
The next hour is devoted to occupational therapy—training in the skills he will need in daily living. Recently, for example, he learned to drive his electric wheelchair by "sipping" and "puffing" air through a strawlike plastic tube he holds in his mouth. (The same type of mechanism controls a panel that operates his TV, fan and lights.) The actor has also learned to speak audibly again by timing his words to coincide with the exhalations of his respirator. More therapy follows in the afternoon. Toward the end of the day, Dana—and sometimes son Will, 3—accompanies Reeve on wheelchair outings on Kessler's seven-acre grounds.
"Christopher is very motivated and extremely sensitive to what's going on," says Sipski. "When the doctors or therapists give him a task, you know he's going to make sure he does it perfectly. If there's an obstacle to overcome, he's going to overcome it."
Sipski identifies with Reeve's competitive drive. Reared in Bridgewater, NJ., by her father, Joseph, an electrician, and her mother, Sophia, a kindergarten teacher, she is the youngest of three siblings and dreamed of becoming a doctor from childhood. She excelled in school, entering an accelerated college and medical-school program offered by Penn State University and Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical School. Graduating with both her B.S. and M.D. at age 22, Sipski did her residency in physiatry at Jefferson, then signed on at Kessler in 1986. (Her older sister, Mary, also a physiatrist, treated the Central Park Jogger, the victim of an infamous 1989 mugging and rape.)
Sipski remains hopeful about Reeve's progress, optimistic that he will recover some muscle movement and be weaned from the respirator. "If I can't cure Christopher—and nobody has a cure for spinal-cord injury—my goal is to help him attain the highest quality of life he can," she says. "Before the accident he was going to direct a movie. I still expect him to direct a movie. I don't see any barriers in his way."
GLENN GARELIK in West Orange