Ann Romney waited for the doctor to move her big toe.
The doctor pushed her toe up and down. But she never felt a thing.
“It was at that point that I just almost burst into tears,” Romney recalls in an interview. “And I realized, ‘I’m failing this test.’”
On the campaign trail, Ann Romney appears healthy, confidently strolling across stages to deliver the good-humored introductions of her husband that have charmed audiences in state after state. Sitting down for a talk with Mrs. Romney in the nation’s capital, it’s the same scenario: There is no visible sign of her multiple sclerosis, the disease that turned her life upside down 14 years ago. Dressed in jeans and a gray sweater layered over a white top, the 63-year-old Romney looks smart, her outfit pulled together with a white watch and a pendant necklace. As she tells her story, describing the ups and downs of living with MS, her expressions flicker between reflective, incredulous, and wry.
By being careful, including stringently minding her diet and making time for rest, Romney has managed to keep the symptoms under control to the point where she can participate fully in the campaign. But there was a time when she had good reason to fear she would never lead a normal life again — she imagined a future life spent in a wheelchair.
In 1998, Romney had a series of tests — including the one in which the doctor checked whether she could feel movement in her toe — and an MRI. The results led to a diagnosis of MS, an autoimmune disease that affects about 400,000 Americans, causes nerve damage, and can lead to vision problems, numbness, slurred speech, and constant fatigue, among other effects. There is no cure, although medical treatment can help those affected.
Normally, explains Timothy Coetzee, a doctor and the chief research officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a person’s immune system works to fight off viruses and bacteria. In the case of MS, the immune system acts very differently. “For reasons that we still don’t know, the immune system decides the brain is now the enemy and starts attacking specific parts of the brain and destroying a person’s nervous system,” Dr. Coetzee says.
Well before she was formally diagnosed, Romney had been feeling the effects of MS. A year or two before her diagnosis, for a spell of about four months, her right leg felt numb. But the busy mother of five sons brushed off the condition, reasoning that the numbness was probably related to a back problem.
That numbness eventually disappeared; but, by the fall of 1998, Romney was coping with an array of medical problems, including dizziness, weakness, tripping, and extreme fatigue. Walking through the lobby of Massachusetts General Hospital, where she served as a member on a cancer board, Romney thought, “I really need to go see somebody.” Her symptoms were such a strange hodgepodge, though, that she didn’t know what kind of doctor she should consult.