As a child, Gabrielle Ford, 30, studied to be a dancer. By the time she was 12, she had put in countless hours of rehearsing ballet, jazz and tap — learning the steps, standing on tip-toes, doings dips, turns and spins — all the while dreaming of the day when she would perform professionally.
Then Ford’s life took an unexpected turn. She began to lose strength and balance. Her gait grew unsteady. She was taken for a series of tests that revealed she had Friedreich’s ataxia (FA). But knowing how much her daughter wanted to be a dancer, Ford’s mother kept the news from her for six months.
When she learned the truth, three days after her 13th birthday, Ford didn’t take it well. “I was in denial,” she writes in her memoir, Still Dancing. “To talk about it would make it real, and I didn’t want it to be real.”
All through high school, Ford kept her diagnosis a secret. Her condition worsened, yet she refused to use any adaptive equipment. As her speech slowed and she began to trip and fall, she endured cruel comments and taunts, and even physical abuse from classmates. She became increasingly isolated. She didn’t want to meet other teens with FA, and she forbade her family from mentioning her condition — or even watching the MDA Telethon on TV.
At graduation, despite a twisted ankle, Ford walked across the stage to receive her diploma. But afterward, she fell into a deep depression. She became angry at the world and mean to her family.
She spent two miserable years before Izzy, a black-and-tan coonhound puppy, came into her life. That’s when things began to change.
By helping her to acknowledge her FA, Izzy pulled Ford out of her shell. First, Ford had to get a wheelchair, so Izzy would grow up comfortable around wheels. (Ford, however, continued to refuse the chair until she fell and broke her arm.) Then Ford learned that Izzy had liver disease, as well as a form of muscular dystrophy that caused muscle weakness similar in some ways to FA.
Izzy’s illness further forced Ford back into the world, as she had to take the dog to numerous doctors and hospitals, and to accept help, financial and otherwise, from friends and family members.
Ford's and Izzy’s story — the two of them helping each other with diseases that were uncannily similar — was published in local newspapers. Word spread about the unusual pair, and Ford got a call from the cable TV channel Animal Planet, which wanted to film her and Izzy’s story for a segment about pets and their owners. The piece aired dozens of times, and “Gabe ’n Izzy” became famous.
The final step in Ford’s redemption came when she and Izzy began visiting schools to talk to kids about the harmful effects of bullying. Ultimately, Ford was even able to speak at her old high school. She has received dozens of letters from children telling her how much her presentation meant to them, and many more inquiring about Izzy.
Even though Izzy passed away in May 2009, Ford, who lives in Fenton, Mich., continues to visit schools, speaking on stage before hundreds of kids about her experiences and encouraging them not to bully others.
She did end up performing — just not in the way she imagined.
Gabrielle Ford’s book, as well as recent information about her anti-bullying presentations, is available on Ford’s website.