Superman’s Mom Helps Launch Living Proof for Senior Citizens

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Barbara Johnson of Princeton is delighting in the active life she was denied in her youth. At 72, she is a competitive rower with an impressive list of awards for sculling and sweep-oar rowing in eights, fours, and singles. The pride of her medal collections is a first place in the prestigious “Head of the Charles” race.

Johnson’s strength, stamina, and courage are remarkable-but not altogether surprising considering she is Superman’s mother. That is, the real-life mom of Superman actor Christopher Reeve. And Johnson’s story – one of hope for the future – is the centerpiece of Living Proof, a national educational campaign for senior citizens.

Johnson’s life was profoundly and forever changed nine years ago when Christopher fell from his horse during an equestrian competition. The accident made him a quadriplegic. It also transformed him from an American movie idol to the nation’s leading advocate for neurological and spinal cord research. And, it has moved his mother to tell her own story publicly, for the first time, in an effort to encourage other senior citizens to do the same.

As a youngster growing up in New York and Connecticut during the depression, Johnson was exposed to tuberculosis. Her nurse died of the contagious respiratory disease, and Johnson was sent away for several months to a sanatorium in South Carolina. When she returned she began to experience asthma attacks, and again she was sent away from her family, this time to a school in Arizona where she lived for four years. The separation from her family was agonizing for her.

In high school and college, Johnson often was left out because of her illness. “I couldn’t run or play field hockey with the other girls,” recalls Johnson. “Cold affected me. And the slightest illness would go to my lungs. But I always tried to participate.”

Medicine finally caught up with Johnson’s determination with the introduction of asthma inhalers 30 years ago. Today, many new medicines are available to help control this increasingly prevalent respiratory illness.

“I’m telling my story not just for me or for others who suffer from respiratory illnesses,” explains Johnson. “I’m hopeful for the future of medicine because of research. And I am well aware of the need for research. Yes, I’m sharing my story for myself and for Chris, but also for my father who died of Alzheimer’s and for my son with diabetes and for the members of my extended family who have suffered from Lou Gehrig’s (ALS) and Parkinson’s. All of these stories should be told, and I encourage other seniors to share their experiences through Living Proof.”

Says Living Proof spokesperson Jayne Mackta, “Senior citizens are living proof of the value of medical research. Their lives are testaments to the pain and suffering so many have endured. But their experiences can also teach us how medicine has changed, offering health and hope to so many.”

Senior citizens are invited to participate in the Living Proof project online at www.Living-Proof.US or by sending their stories in the mail to: Living Proof, P.O. Box 360, Milwaukee, WI 53201-0360. Stories will be archived and available to the public on the website.

Living Proof, an educational history campaign designed to document the amazing role medical research has played in the lives of all Americans, is being sponsored in New Jersey by the New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research, a coalition dedicated to improving human and animal health through biomedical research. Living Proof is a project of States United for Biomedical Research and the National Institutes of Health.

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