Gabrielle Ford was 20 years old and hiding in her room, driven there by the abuse of vicious bullying she had suffered in school because of a degenerative neuromuscular disease. She asked her mother if she could have a dog, because she desperately needed a friend.
Ford not only got a faithful companion, she also got an entirely new and wonderful life.
Because of Izzy, the coonhound she got, Ford has become a highly sought-after speaker who travels the country in her wheelchair, talking to school assemblies and classes about ways to stop bullying.
Their story, as reported for TODAY on Friday by NBC’s Jenna Wolfe, is an extraordinary and heartwarming tale about shared love between human and canine. The bond the two share goes beyond the normal relationship of owner and pet.
When Izzy was just a year old, she was diagnosed with the canine equivalent of the Friedrich’s Ataxia that afflicts Ford.
“When she became sick, it was like she could, you know, relate with me,” Ford said. “I call Izzy my second life.”
In reality, it is more of a third life. The first chapter of Ford’s life was that of a normal girl growing up in Michigan who loved to dance. But as she hit her teens, she began having trouble with coordination, balance and speech. When she was 13, doctors diagnosed her with Friedrich’s Ataxia, a genetic, progressive condition that affects the central nervous system and erodes muscular control and speech.
Ford’s condition made her a target of bullies in school. “People would make fun of the way I walked, the way I would talk,” she said. “Every little move I made, I was critiqued.”
One boy took particular joy in picking on her. “He just tormented me every day,” she said. “He would just come by and punch me in the side.”
Her mother, Rhonda Hillman, suffered along with her daughter, watching the bright, outgoing girl she had known become withdrawn and depressed. When she graduated from high school, she retreated to her room, unwilling to come out and face a world that she felt had no use for her.
“I just didn't care anymore about anything,” Ford said. “I was really mean. I was angry to people. It was like I was wasting away.”
That’s when she decided she wanted a dog, and the droopy-faced, black-and-tan hound she named Izzy came into her life. Izzy provided immediate companionship and unconditional affection, but Ford’s life really began to change when the Animal Planet cable network picked up the story about the dog and the young woman who shared the same disease.
A teacher at a local school saw the piece, contacted Ford, who continues to live with her mother, and asked her if she would speak at a school assembly on bullying. Ford, who speaks from her wheelchair, was nervous about speaking in public, but agreed to do it.
She was so good, other schools started asking her to speak. Today, she does about one lecture a week, often bringing audiences to tears with her heartfelt testimony to the cruelty of bullying.
“I enjoy talking to the students at school,” she said. “And I like the feeling of being accepted.”
Ford, 28, can look forward to living many more years. But Izzy is defying the odds with every day of life. She’s still getting around at the age of 8, years after veterinarians said she should have been dead.
Ford is writing a book about her life. Entitled “Still Dancing,” it is scheduled for release next Christmas by the Christian publisher Zoe Life. A series of children’s books featuring Gabe and Izzy is also in the works.
“My life has gotten so much better,” because of Izzy, Ford said. “I've overcome my fears. I'm not embarrassed of what I look like anymore. And I deserve to live every day, just like everybody else.”