December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

At his foundation’s annual fund-raiser in Manhattan on Nov. 24, Christopher Reeve had a tough act to follow: himself. At last year’s event, Reeve—paralyzed since a 1995 riding accident—surprised the crowd by moving his index finger, the result of intense physical therapy. This year Reeve pulled off an even more astounding feat: He spoke before a live audience for the first time without using his respirator. “Ever since I was about 7 years old I’ve tried to avoid having to get dressed up and wear a necktie,” he joked. “Finally I get my wish.”

His remarkable progress is due to the successful—and experimental—implanting of four electrodes on his diaphragm on Feb. 28. The electrodes stimulate the diaphragm, causing it to contract and allowing Reeve, 51, to go as long as 20 hours at a time without his respirator. The journey wasn’t all smooth sailing. He battled two post-surgery lung infections and pneumonia. “I’ve also choked a couple of times, because timing the normal breathing while eating is something I had to relearn,” says Reeve, who has a son, Will, 11, with wife Dana, 42, as well as two children with former girlfriend Gae Exton, son Matthew, 23, and daughter Alexandra, 20.

Reeve “continues to surprise us,” says his doctor, John McDonald, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Chris’s example really changes the mind-set of everyone: ‘Geez, it is possible.’ ” Now able to smell, sneeze and blow out candles, Reeve—who had his head shaved because of a condition called alopecia, which causes patchy hair loss—sees the breakthrough as his latest step toward recovery. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he says. “But the good news is that we’re not lost in the woods.”

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