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Trail no obstacle for Ann Romney

Uses discipline to manage MS

Ann Romney met with GOP voters in Minden, Nev., last month. Ann Romney met with GOP voters in Minden, Nev., last month. (Sandra Chereb/Associated Press)
By Shira Schoenberg
Globe Correspondent / September 22, 2011

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KEENE, N.H. - When Ann Romney attended a Republican luncheon at Michele’s Ristorante, she passed up the standard chicken and beef entrees and instead asked the chef to pack up a chicken Caesar salad to go.

“We got a little ways out of town and ate,’’ recalled Romney’s traveling aide Susan Duprey. “I bring little tablecloths to put on our laps, and silverware. We sit there, eat our healthy food, and go on.’’

For Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, proper nutrition is not about looking thin onstage. Eating healthy is one of the ways Romney, 62, manages her multiple sclerosis, a chronic neurological disease that she has lived with for more than a decade. It has been in remission since 2002.

Despite the disease, she is the only Republican spouse in the race so far maintaining her own campaign schedule, traveling to a different state each week.

A casual observer can see no hint of the disease that once made it difficult for her to walk. A mother of five sons and grandmother to 16, she speaks to campaign gatherings about her husband’s commitment to his family and his respect for her role raising the family; she takes a pass on policy debates.

Duprey said that on a typical day Romney will do three to four events, while making phone calls and writing personal notes in between. Days typically run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and can include driving up to 200 miles.

In addition to having multiple sclerosis, Romney had a cancerous lump removed from her breast in 2008. A routine mammogram showed a noninvasive early stage of breast cancer. The abnormal cells were removed through a lumpectomy, and Romney went through several weeks of radiation. She has not had any aftereffects, son Tagg Romney said.

Ann Romney is not the first candidate’s spouse with health problems. Elizabeth Edwards’s incurable breast cancer returned during her husband John Edwards’s 2007 presidential campaign. Betty Ford, wife of former president Gerald Ford, openly talked about her breast cancer after getting a mastectomy in 1974.

But friends say the Romneys discussed Ann’s health before Mitt decided to run, and they have never heard the couple worry that it would hinder her as a candidate’s spouse or as first lady. Tagg, 41, said it was Ann who encouraged a hesitant Mitt to launch a second presidential bid.

“When they were at the decision point, each time it’s been ‘Well, how are you, are you prepared to take on the whole package this represents?’ ’’ said Gloria White-Hammond, co-pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston and a friend of Ann Romney. “Each time she’s been very supportive, very encouraging. She’s certainly not been cavalier or impulsive. It’s something she’s thought and prayed through, and she feels very confident this is the season to make the run.’’

Mitt Romney said in 2005, when he was first considering a 2008 presidential run, that he “wouldn’t be involved in politics anymore’’ if his wife’s illness flared up.

Yet while she has been in remission, specialists say multiple sclerosis is unpredictable. Symptoms can strike at any time and can be as severe as temporary blindness or paralysis. “One challenge of living with a disease like MS is you never know when the next exacerbation is coming, what might trigger it, what it will be,’’ said Steve Sookikian, a spokesman for the Greater New England Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Though there is no cure for multiple sclerosis, doctors have recommended ways to manage symptoms, ranging from physical or occupational therapy, to the use of wheelchairs or walkers, to stress management, nutrition, exercise, and alternative therapies such as reflexology.

When Romney was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November 1998, she was tired and weak, and her legs felt numb. “The first year of the disease is horrible, because you just can’t stand living with this cloud that’s over you and that’s sort of moved into your body,’’ Romney told the Globe in 2003. Romney declined to be interviewed for this story.

On the campaign trail in July, Romney described herself in 1999 as being “so devastated by multiple sclerosis, so weakened that I was hardly able to take care of myself.’’

She began treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, before moving to Utah in early 1999, where Mitt Romney managed the 2002 Olympics. She was also treated at the University of Utah Medical Center.

It was in Utah that Romney found a treatment that would help her overcome her illness - dressage horseback riding. Romney rode horses as a child in Michigan, and returned to riding with a trainer in Utah, then in California.

Romney told The Chronicle of the Horse magazine in an article published in 2008 that riding gave her joy and purpose. “It jump-started my healing,’’ Romney said. “When I was so fatigued that I couldn’t move, the excitement of going to the barn and getting my foot in the stirrup would make me crawl out of bed.’’

Romney also turned to alternative medicine - reflexology, acupuncture, and yoga. “When you’re sick, you try everything, the things you’d never consider when you’re healthy,’’ Tagg Romney said.

Romney took steroids at first - a common treatment to stabilize multiple sclerosis - but stopped after they made her sick, Tagg said. She stayed away from drugs after that, focusing on alternative medicine, riding, and nutrition.

Tagg said Mitt Romney offered to quit his job to care for his wife; she said no. Ann Romney continued to do volunteer work and care for her family.

In 2002, she went into remission. Romney told voters in Laconia, N.H, this July that at the Olympic Games, her husband chose her as his “personal hero’’ to carry the Olympic torch into Salt Lake City. “It was an amazing thing,’’ Romney said. “To be too weak to barely walk when we got out there, and to be strong enough after three years, to have my children helping me to hold my arm up, and my husband was at my elbow, running with me and running the torch into Salt Lake City as his hero.’’

When her husband was Massachusetts governor, Romney attended walks and fund-raisers to benefit multiple sclerosis research, and told her story to raise awareness of the disease.

On the campaign trail, she is careful to maintain a healthy lifestyle. She paces herself, resting between appearances and not traveling cross country multiple times a week. She goes riding in California and Massachusetts and swims in Lake Winnipesaukee.

Duprey said Romney’s discipline has given her and Mitt hope about her ability to keep the disease at bay. “They’re both very optimistic people and so far their optimism has been borne out by the experience she’s had with MS, with it being in remission, and with her ability to maintain things through leading this pretty disciplined life,’’ Duprey said.

Romney talks openly about her multiple sclerosis on the campaign trail, sometimes spending extra time talking to a voter struggling with illness.

“She doesn’t make excuses for it, try to hide it,’’ said Sharon Sykas, who has volunteered for both of Mitt Romney’s campaigns in New Hampshire. “She’s . . . someone for us to look to, to say if she can do it, I can do it, my friends can do it. Think positively, get the best treatment you can and take care of yourself.’’

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at