March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

The first thing Christopher Reeve noticed was the quiet. Then the smells: an orange, a chocolate chip cookie, a mint. Nearly eight years after a horseback-riding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, “I actually woke up and smelled the coffee,” said Reeve. Thanks to a Feb. 28 procedure that implanted four electrodes into the actor’s diaphragm, he can now enjoy 15-minute intervals a dozen times a day breathing off the ventilator that has whirred nearly nonstop at his side since he was injured. One of his first words to Dr. Raymond Onders, who did the 4½-hour surgery at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, was: “Shuush!” As Reeve said, “All you could hear was the breathing through my nose. I haven’t heard that sound since 1995.”

He wasn’t expected to ever hear it again. But doctors had also predicted that Reeve, 50, would never regain any motor ability. The actor first lifted a finger on his left hand in 2002, and aided by rigorous physical therapy prescribed by Dr. John McDonald, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Reeve is now wiggling his toes, raising his right hand, even pushing off a pool wall with his legs. If he is able to strengthen his diaphragm through stimulation exercises, he may be able to go off the ventilator altogether. “It is a big step forward,” says McDonald. The third patient to receive the implant, Reeve is mindful of the odds: The first patient has been off his ventilator for two years, but the second operation failed. Still, he is hopeful. Drawing his own breath, said Reeve, is “preparation for an overall recovery.”

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