Family Dog Magazine - March 2004


By Elizabeth Hendrickson

Just think of Gabrielle Ford as the caterpillar who turnedinto the butterfly. And while you're at it, consider her 3-year-old Black and Tan Coonhound, Izzy, to be the cocoon that made the amazing transformation possible.

Without television's Animal Planet, however perhaps no one would've tested Gabe's wings. And right now the, 23-year-old is certainly soaring, in so many ways.

"I love to fly," says Gabe, who lives in Fenton, Michigan, a small town outside of Detroit. "I can't really explain why, there's something about it -- it's like being independent and not relying on anybody."

This comment could be from any person in their early 20's who is experiencing their first rush of autonomy--except Gabe isn't just anybody. She's someone who can't walk without the aid of a wheelchair.

When Gabe was 12 years old she was diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia, a rare progressive neuromuscular disease that slowly cripples the arms and legs. Throughout high school, Gabe hid her illness, at the expense of having classmates taunt her about her slurred speech and uncoordinated movement. After she graduated, she rarely left the house she still shares with her mother and two sisters. Her health plummeted and her mother, Rhonda, worried endlessly about her.

"Gabe was ashamed of herself and afraid of others, and at the same time loneliness was eating away at her," Rhonda said. "Gabe would go to her bedroom and hide out if anyone came to visit."

And then came Izzy.

Five years ago, Gabe begged her mom to let her get a dog. The teenager researched different breeds and fell in love with the Black and Tan Coonhound puppies because she "loves those long ears." When she settled on a female pup, Gabe named her new long-eared friend Building A Mystery, or Izzy for short, after her favorite Sara McLachlan song. But despite the added companionship, Gabe still didn't want to leave the house.

Then months after Izzy came to her new home, the dog had to have emergency surgery. During the operation, the vet saw that Izzy had an abnormally small liver. The condition was found to be incurable, and Izzy was put on a special diet for the rest of her life. This also meant that Izzy would require regular trips to the vet. And that duty fell on Gabe--which meant that she had to leave the house and face the public.

"I just believe it was something meant to happen, because if Izzy had not been sick Gabe would still be hiding in the house," says Rhonda.

In fact, Gabe's personal journey was extraordinary enough to inspire Animal Planet's Pet Story to tape and air a segment called "Izzy & Gabe" three years ago. The touching half-hour story recounts Gabe's early years a ballerina, through her high-school trauma, and then to Izzy's own disease. It's both touching and uplifting -- and the segment changed Gabe's life yet again.

"I would see Gabe look forward to making her way to the mail box each day, because the letters just started coming in," says Rhonda. "Many of those who contacted Gabe told her how much the story inspired them and what a strong person she is."

NEW FRIENDS

Gabe says she still doesn't have too many local friends--aside from her loyal high-school friend Amanda -- but instead has accumulated a support system stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

There's Neil from Philadelphia, who visited Rhonda, Gabe, and Izzy several times, and even took Gabe to a Pearl Jam concert last summer (her favorite band). There's Paul form New Jersey, who played tour guide to Rhonda and Gabe this summer during a visit to New York City (he took them to ground zero so Gabe could see where the search dogs worked.)And there is California Sean, whom Gabe meets this February when she traveled to San Diego, to address the National Ataxia Foundation (her first big speaking engagement).

"The most important thing in life is relationships, and we're just on a journey in my eyes," says Rhonda. It's the people we touch. The material things are nice, but they are secondary."

AN ADDITIONAL CHALLENGE

Rhonda and Gabe began noticing that in the past year, Izzy had been acting intolerant and edgy whenever they would take her out of the house. Because they knew this wasn't the hound's normal disposition, they took her to the vet--who recommended Izzy be a test subject with a premier neurologist at the University of California-San Diego Veterinary hospital. Rhonda and Gabe agreed. The dog's blood and urine test showed Izzy has a neurological disorder that is similar in nature to Gabe's own medical condition.

"When I gave Gabe the news, she said, 'It's going to OK, Mom she is not going to die," says Rhonda. "Gabe said, 'Izzy and I understand each other. Plus, I'm used to it; Izzy's never been a very athletic dog. "

BIG PLANS

Don't be surprised if a few years from now, you're walking through your local bookstore and you see Gabe and Izzy's faces radiating from a book cover.

"Neil tells me I should write a children's book, and I have recently been thinking about more about it," says Gabe. "When I got home from Chicago, I was really motivated to make it happen, and now I'm really excited about that this might become a reality.

'She just has strength, she's my inspiration," says Rhonda. "If you see what you have and not what you don't have, you'll always be on top of the world. And I am so fortunate to have Gabe as my daughter."


Elizabeth Hendrickson is a writer and editor who has worked for Glamour, Ladies' Home Journal, and First for Women. She is currently working on her master's in journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia.