From a Cocoon to a Butterfly in Six Years

by Gabrielle Ford on July 1, 2004 - 9:00pm

Who would have guessed that Gabrielle Nicole Ford who during high school was considered an outcast, who hid away for six years, would one day be known around the world, thanks to a story on the Animal Planet television network?

Izabel and Gabrielle cuddle on their front porch.

That half-hour story recounts my early years as a ballerina, my diagnosis with Friedreich's ataxia (FA), my high school trauma and withdrawal from life, and how my dog's illness so similar to my own brought me back to the world.

I sometimes wonder if the kids in high school who called me names think of me now. I wonder if they remember how they tripped me, knocked my books out of my hands, slammed my locker shut while I was trying to open it, threw spit wads at me, and hit and bruised my legs.

Never to dance

Three days after my 13th birthday, my mother, Rhonda Hillman, gave me the news about FA that started me spinning my cocoon. Mom had waited six months before telling me.

How could she tell me that I would never dance tap, jazz and ballet again? How could she take away my eight-year love of being on stage? Hearing I'd never dance on stage again felt like a knife in my side.

A year later when we moved to Fenton, Mich., and I found myself at a new school in Lake Fenton Township, I made it my goal to hide my disease. I was young and afraid and wanted so much to be like my healthy classmates.

In my junior and senior years, my disease became more obvious. My speech slowed and I fell a lot. I didn't tell Mom about the verbal abuse I received, but the bruises on my legs spoke when I wouldn't.

Mom urged me to educate the kids at school about my disease, hoping they'd understand and be helpful to me, but I strongly objected. I asked her to let me handle it my way trying to hide it.

I'm sure my classmates knew something was different about me, but when graduation night came, I walked across the stage without anyone knowing I had FA.

Eaten up with loneliness

My life changed a lot after graduation. I called the few friends I had in high school, but they didn't return my calls. I felt like an extra piece of luggage. My friends had found a new freedom and I couldn't keep up with them.

Gabe and Izzy ride side-by-side in wheelchairs through an airport on their way to a speaking engagement.

If anyone came to visit our home, I'd make my way to my bedroom and hide behind my four walls. I constantly worried: If people made fun of me in high school, what will they think of me now that I can't walk? I was angry down deep about not having any friends, and ashamed of myself.

After two years, loneliness was eating me alive. I asked my mom if I could get a dog. I wanted a black-and-tan coonhound because I loved their big, soft, long ears and sad faces. Soon thereafter, I got my puppy, Izabel — Izzy.

Izzy and I became very close. I told her everything, like girlfriends do. She would listen to me intently, watching with her beautiful brown eyes. I would sing her to sleep at night, making her my everything. It was nice to have someone who needed me.

A choice made from love

Then one day, I found Izzy lying on the floor and she couldn't get up. Mom and I rushed her to the vet. After many tests, the vet said Izzy had a rare, sometimes-fatal liver condition that required specialized surgery.

My mom had warned me I'd be responsible for all of Izzy's needs. So after years of hiding, I had to go out into the public eye, for Izzy.

Caring for her helped change my thinking. I'd frequently become angry while out because I thought someone was staring at me, thinking bad things about me. I'd get terribly upset and demand to return to my bedroom.

Now I had to meet people — from veterinarians to breeders to news media interested in Izzy's story, to people offering to help. Izzy's care was forcing me out of my cocoon.

Into a butterfly

Unfortunately, surgery was unable to correct Izzy's liver defect, but a special low-protein diet stabilized her condition.

Izzy's illness was like my own: She had trouble with balance, the doctors couldn't cure her and one day the illness might take her life. That odd coincidence led to a wonderful breakthrough in our lives.

In 2001, the cable TV channel Animal Planet sent out a crew to do an episode of "Pet Story" about our experience. For the first time in eight years I opened up and talked about my disease, and it was the experience of a lifetime. The story, "Izzy and Gabe," has now aired 36 times and is still airing.

Another muscle disease

But more surprises awaited.

After three years of good health, Izzy again began having trouble with weakness and walking. A veterinary neurologist in San Diego diagnosed a rare progressive muscle disease.

Yes, my dog has a neuromuscular disease. My vet here in Michigan said, "I've been a vet a long time but I've never seen anything like this before. Izzy looks just like Gabe, the two are so bonded."

Now the two of us take coenzyme Q10 and vitamin E. We both require special diets, and have weakness, tremors, fatigue and muscle atrophy. She needs me and I need her. We lean on each other to survive our diseases.

Thanks to Izzy, I'm spreading my wings wider every day. Who knows what branch I'll land on next?

So far, I've filmed two TV stories ("Pet Story" and "Pets and People: Common Diseases" for the University of California at San Diego TV/Internet network). Two national magazines (AKC Gazette and Family Dog) have featured us.

I've begun speaking at schools about neuromuscular diseases and the effects of bullying. I spoke at a national conference on ataxia in California in February, and have been asked to speak in Ohio, Texas and Vancouver, Canada. Recently, the Genesee County Humane Society in Michigan gave us the Human/Animal Bond Award, and Izzy's been nominated for an American Kennel Club (AKC) 2004 Award for Canine Excellence.

One of the best things is that I've made new friends. Thanks to the kindness of a young man in San Diego named Brandon Carson, I have my own Web site. In the guest book, people from all over the world leave wonderful comments. It makes me feel good to hear that my story has helped others, and each comment gives me strength and confidence I never knew before.

My goals are to write a children's storybook about Gabe and Izzy's true-life adventures, continue speaking at schools about bullying and, who knows, maybe even do some modeling!

Meant to be

My mom, being a positive person, recently said she believes that God knew I'd someday dance again on the stage in a different way. She believes Izzy came into my life to help me cope with my disease. She thinks that all of us affected by muscle diseases can educate the world and make it a better place to live. Maybe she's right!

I spent six years of my life trying to hide but I'm going forward now. Izzy and I are going forward together.

Gabrielle Ford, 23, lives in Fenton, Mich., with her family.

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