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.
Romney finally called her brother Jim Davies, a doctor in San Diego. After she described her symptoms, Davies paused for a moment — and then told her she needed to see a neurologist. The neurologist referred her to an MS specialist.
When the specialist delivered the diagnosis, Romney had little opportunity to process how her life had changed. Her condition was rapidly deteriorating. For years, she and several friends had worked out with a personal trainer. One day, when it was time for a workout, the once-athletic Romney couldn’t find the strength to climb out of bed.
The personal trainer entered the bedroom where Romney was resting. “I remember her coming and literally climbing in my bed, and just moving my limbs, and I was just sitting there, just crying,” Romney says. She recalls thinking, “I can’t believe this — a month ago, I was working out, and I was fit.” Almost overnight, her physical strength had vanished.
Romney was horrified by how fast the disease was moving and her inability to halt it. “Where is this going to end, and how is this going to end?” she wondered. She viewed MS as a “monster” — it refused to “spit me out,” she says.
A solution seemed elusive. The first treatment for MS wasn’t identified until 1993. Her doctor had no recommendations for treatment. (There have been significant improvements in treatment since Romney was diagnosed in 1998.) A frustrated Romney took matters into her own hands and consulted another doctor, Howard Weiner, a neurologist in Boston.
Her medical challenges were growing more serious. The numbness had spread from the tip of her toes to the middle of her upper body. She had no way of knowing when — or if — the process would halt.
When she had her appointment with Dr. Weiner, Romney cut to the chase, asking him, “When is this going to stop?” Unlike her other doctor, Dr. Weiner wanted to fight against the disease. “He took me by my hand,” Romney recalls. “He took me right to the infusion center, which is the chemotherapy-infusion center, sat me down, and said, ‘Start now — massive IV steroids and chemotherapy.’”
It was a way to potentially treat MS, but it wasn’t without pitfalls. “‘The theory has always been to not do this,’” Romney remembers Dr. Weiner explaining. Nonetheless, he argued strongly that she ought to do it: “He said we’ve discovered that the sooner you attack it, the harder you attack it, the better off people are,” Romney says. She took his advice and started the once-a-month treatment.
Treatment succeeded in reversing some of the numbness, but there was no instant miracle, and Romney’s personal life continued to unravel. Mitt Romney took over the laundry and cooking. (Asked what kind of cook he was, sons Tagg and Josh Romney say that Mitt Romney’s go-to meals are spaghetti, and pancakes with bacon.) “He made me feel really good about the things that I couldn’t do anymore,” Romney says of her husband. “I wasn’t able to go to the grocery store. I couldn’t cook dinners. I couldn’t do anything. And he just rolled right with it and just started doing everything.”
He also provided crucial emotional support. “His reaction was that we can deal with anything,” Romney remembers. “Together. We’re together. We’re okay, we can fight this, we can deal with anything.”
Mitt Romney learned more than how to manage a household during those difficult days that his wife was battling MS. “My dad likes to fix things,” observes Tagg Romney, the Romneys’ eldest son. But Ann Romney’s MS, Tagg continues, was a situation where there was “nothing he could fix.”
Of the five Romney sons, only the youngest, Craig, was still living at home. A senior in high school at the time, he faced questions from classmates who wanted to know how he felt about his mother dying. “Craig would come home so upset, and he’s like, ‘You didn’t tell me you were going to die,’” Romney remembers. “And I’m like, ‘No, that’s because I’m not.’ People had such misperceptions about it.”
In 1999, Romney faced another huge challenge: moving across the country to Utah, where she had no friends or community. Mitt Romney had been tapped to lead the Olympics, and the couple had initially hoped that Mitt would be able to fly back home to Massachusetts occasionally. Shortly after he started the job, however, it became clear that it would not be practical for him to be absent from Utah very often. They changed their plans. Matt Romney, the couple’s second son, would move into the family home in Massachusetts so that Craig Romney could finish his senior year in the state. And Ann Romney would move to Utah.
“I left everything that I knew,” she says. But in her heart she was convinced it was the right decision to make — although she finds it hard in retrospect to imagine what she was thinking. “I was completely overwhelmed with grief and depression and everything when I left,” Romney remembers. She had lived in Massachusetts virtually her entire adult life.
In Utah, Romney worked to develop a routine. Josh Romney, the third of the Romney sons, was living in Salt Lake City at the time, and mother and son met regularly for lunch, often at a bagel shop near Josh. “We spent a lot of time just trying to talk things through,” he recalls. Mitt Romney juggled the household chores and running the Olympics. On his drive home, he would sometimes stop at Albertson’s, a grocery store in Park City, to pick up dinner. One favorite meal was rotisserie chicken, accompanied by side dishes of broccoli and pita bread.
Through all this, Ann Romney wondered how long her ability to walk, even with difficulty, would last. She recalls thinking, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up in a wheelchair, pretty sure I’m going to be really bad.” She resolved to take action and made a decision: “I want to do things that I love so much in life before I can’t do them anymore.”
So Romney bought a horse, Buddy. Romney is quick to tell me that Buddy wasn’t an “expensive” horse. “Having him,” she says, “was like the coolest thing in the world.” Buddy was a trail and first-level dressage horse, and he was Romney’s companion in those days. “I was pretty lonely,” she admits.
Buddy’s stable was a 35-minute drive from the Romneys’ Utah home. Once at the stable, Romney would spend hours and hours with Buddy, grooming him and cleaning out his stall. Still very weak, she could barely ride the horse: “I could only ride, like really ride, for like five minutes” before getting too worn out.
But Romney’s affection for Buddy transformed her outlook on life and gave her a reason to push herself to climb out of bed each morning. “I noticed that I had this euphoria afterwards — it kind of got me out of that fatigue place for a little bit, just for a little time,” she says of her riding. Slowly, she began to feel slightly stronger.
Time passed. And then Mitt Romney nominated his wife — without telling her — to carry the Olympic torch, citing her as his personal hero. It would be an arduous task for her: Those who carry the Olympic torch run for a quarter-mile before relaying the torch to the next person. For weeks beforehand, Romney practiced, building up her strength.
“She was able to jog the whole thing,” remembers Josh Romney, who was there with her, running alongside his mom.
“I literally ran,” Romney says, describing how she carried the torch, with friends and some of her sons present. “My kids were all surrounding me,” she says. “And they were all crying because they knew what a miracle it was that I came [to Utah] barely able to walk and now [here] I was, three years later, torch in hand, the Olympics were a success, I was back on track, I was regaining my strength, and off I ran with this torch into the city.”
Those who had watched her grapple with the disease were amazed to see how much she had regained her strength. “We recognized she would be better, that she could live a healthy and normal life,” Josh Romney says.
For a decade now, Romney’s MS has been in remission. That doesn’t mean, however, that her symptoms have vanished entirely. On occasion, she must contend with dizziness and memory loss. Still, Romney is optimistic about the future. “If you’ve got ten years of remission, you can pretty much look forward to ten more years,” she says, adding that she has not suffered any more nerve damage in recent years.
She can never forget to be careful, though. She’s very much aware of the dangers of overextending herself during this time. “I know I’m walking a tightrope,” she says. “I know that I can fall off very easily and quickly.”
Looking back, Romney views the Utah sojourn with gratitude. It was one of “the greatest blessings in our life,” she says. Moving to Utah “was the best decision I ever made . . . because during those three years, I completely regained my strength, went into remission with MS, [and] had this enormous love of horses renew my soul.”
The Utah move also gave Romney an understanding of what it’s like to plunge into a new experience without knowing what the outcome will be. Sometimes, Romney reflects, “you just have to have the courage to step in a scary doorway [and] you don’t know where it’s going to lead you.” That’s what she’s doing now, campaigning across the country with and for her husband. For Ann Romney, the unknown beyond the White House doorway is probably the second-most daunting prospect she has faced.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.