In the fall of 1998, at age 49, Ann Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "I couldn't go to the grocery store, I couldn't cook dinner, I couldn't get out of bed, I couldn't take care of myself, hardly," she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Romney remembers visiting her doctor at the time, who told her: "Come back when you're much worse, and we'll treat you with steroids. Those are the big guns we save for when you're really bad." She remembers thinking with fear and worry, "I'm really bad right now."
Ann Romney also remembers thinking that her life was over.
Multiple sclerosis is a nervous system disease that can cause a host of issues, from pain and numbness to loss of vision and loss of bodily or motor functions, and this can all happen on a sliding scale of severity. When she was diagnosed, Romney's husband, Mitt, was by her side. "He cried," she remembers. "And then he held me and he said: 'I don't care if you get in a wheelchair, I don't care if you make another dinner, we're gonna be fine. And we're in this together.'"
Romney recalls going through a period of depression after her diagnosis, sometimes thinking "I'm worthless; I'm a burden," until she came to a point when she realized she had to stop grieving and start living.
After a long hiatus, the lifelong horse lover began riding horses again. She also joined her politician husband on the campaign trail as he ran for governor of Massachusetts and later president of the United States. She figured she couldn't wallow in her sadness and pain any longer; she had to get up and move.
"The dearest, most tender moments of campaigning were when people would come with neurologic diseases, a lot of them with multiple sclerosis, because they sympathized with me," Romney says. "They had so much emotion that they would literally collapse. I was grateful. They gave me energy. They gave me another reason to keep going."
A few years after her diagnosis, Romney was referred to Howard Weiner, MD, a neurologist and the director of the multiple sclerosis program at Brigham and Women's Hospital. During her time as his patient, the two came up with the idea for the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases. The thriving research center is now co-led by Romney, Weiner, and Dennis Selkoe, MD. It is home to a team of 250 researchers who are working to find cures, prevention, and treatments for MS, Alzheimer's disease, ALS, Parkinson's disease, and brain tumors.
"One of the biggest misconceptions [about MS] is that when you are diagnosed, you are going to die," Romney says. "That is not the case anymore."
Reflecting on her own journey, she adds, "I'm now strong. I was weak. I found answers, and I fought my way through. Now I call it my gift," she says of MS and her ability to assist in the push to find a cure.
"I know what it's like to be desperate," Romney shares. "I know what it's like to have no hope. And I don't want people to feel that way anymore. I am going to give people hope."