As you'd expect with any presidential contender, Mitt Romney has aroused controversy in his party by seeming to flip-flop on issues like illegal immigration and health care. But there's no argument about the fact that Romney's wife, Ann is strongly behind her husband's run for the GOP nomination-and is an effective speaker for him as well.
"He's a turnaround guy. He fixes things," Ann Romney said in an interview with CNN. "I think people are going to say it's time for someone who has experience and knows what they're doing to turn this country around." When she makes speeches at political hot-spot gatherings like a conference of the Hispanic Leaders Network, he stands by her, smiling proudly. And as she repeatedly has said, her encouragement was instrumental in helping her husband decide to make a run for it.
No one who hears her speak would ever guess that Ann Romney, 62, mother of five sons and grandmother of eleven children, is suffering from multiple sclerosis.
MS is a disease in which the myelin sheaths of the nerves are damaged, leading to impaired function of the senses, motion or even the brain. It's especially frightening for a number of reasons: there's no preventing it, there is no cure, and it's uncertain how far the disease will progress. Some patients end up in wheelchairs, while others are relatively unaffected.
Ann Romney is one of the latter group, although after she was diagnosed in 1998, she had a bad year, both physically and emotionally. "I was very sick," she recalled, saying she was so depressed that she was "crushed to dust." In another interview, she said, 'I was pretty frightened. It was tough at the beginning, just to think, this is how I'm going to feel for the rest of my life." For a time, she was unable physically even to get out of bed.
Although it's possible that Romney could have been diagnosed earlier with the disease (she began showing symptoms in 1997, several months before her diagnosis) symptoms of MS like fatigue and numbness are maddeningly elusive. They can disappear for months at a time, leaving undiagnosed MS sufferers with the impression that there's nothing wrong with them after all. (Ann Romney had been feeling fatigued and numbness in her body for months before being diagnosed.)
Initially, she was given the conventional MS treatment of intravenous steroids to manage her symptoms. Although the steroids seemed to work, she didn't want to take that medicine. "A lot of people get really sick from the drugs…that was kind of my case," she's said. Instead, she turned to alternative therapies like massage, craniosacral therapy and acupuncture. "There is huge merit in Eastern and Western medicine," she said, "and I've taken a little bit from both."
But, she maintains, what has helped her most is horseback riding-specifically, dressage, the finely calibrated equine movements made famous by Vienna's Lipizzaner stallions. "It was like Christmas every day for me," she said in an interview. "I'd sit on a horse and forget I was even sick. I became so joyful and exhilarated that it brought my emotional state to another place, and physically, it got me moving and got my system charged."
Today, going against recommendations of the medical profession, she doesn't take any conventional drugs. But she knows her case is probably exceptional, and she's careful to point out that she's not suggesting that others take the same path. "I would recommend no one to do what I did because it was such a leap of faith," she told The New York Times.
With another health issue, though, she's stuck to conventional therapy. After being diagnosed in 2008 with ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive type of breast cancer, she underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment.
Although Mitt Romney doesn't talk a lot about his wife's MS, what he has said indicates how strongly he feels about her. He called the day she was diagnosed "the worst day of my life" and that he would quit politics if she ever needed daily care. "I couldn't operate without Ann," he said. "We're a partnership."
On the campaign trail, Ann Romney doesn't speak only about her husband's politics. She's happy to spend extra time after speeches with a member of the audience who's suffering from MS. "She's … someone for us to look to, to say if she can do it, I can do it, my friends can do it," a woman told the Boston Globe. "Think positively, get the best treatment you can and take care of yourself.''
Pretty good advice, no matter what party you belong to.
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