PORTLAND, Maine — Stephanie Fox had started to do the type of work few people have to worry about at age 47.
“I made arrangements for the dogs. I made arrangements to sell the house and kind of got everything cleaned up before I wasn’t able to do it anymore,” the Portland woman recalled. “I was getting so sick, the original doctors I was working with said, ‘Nothing more can be done.’”
But in a twist of fate, a disabled dog Fox had rescued years ago would, in a way, get his chance to repay the favor. The widespread fame gained by border collie Roosevelt and his unusual front-leg wheelchair provided Fox with an unexpected network of friends around the country. And that network, she said, may have saved her life.
A frequent hiker, Fox believes she contracted what would become debilitating cases of Lyme disease and a Bartonella infection at least two years before doctors were able to officially diagnose them. The disease had spread to her liver, lungs, spinal cord and eyes in the meantime, and her body was rejecting the antibiotic treatment doctors had prescribed.
Breathing hurt so badly she had to concentrate to do it, Fox said.
“I remember being scared that if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t remember to breathe,” she said. “I would think, ‘If I wake up in the morning, what am I going to do next? And if I don’t wake up, is everything where it needs to be?’”
Roosevelt’s star turn
In April 2012, photographer Robert F. Bukaty published a photo essay in the Bangor Daily News of Roosevelt and his wheeled contraption. The dog was born with malformed front legs and got around largely by hopping on his back legs like a kangaroo.
But that hopping caused a dangerous curvature in his spine, and Fox, who’d adopted him through New England Border Collie Rescue, had a wheelchair specially made to support the front half of his body.
Roosevelt loved it. Fox took him and her other rescued collies on walks through the woods, and with his wheels, Roosevelt could traverse nearly any terrain.
“He was so hardcore on his first one, he kept bending the frame,” she said. “He kept hitting jumps and jumping over things.”
Eventually, Fox had to get him a more fortified frame for “off-roading,” as well as skis for the snow. He’s not allowed to wear his wheels in the house any more because he kept spinning out and leaving rubber marks on the hardwood flooring, Fox said.
Bukaty’s inspirational pictures of the dog and his wheelchair went viral. Roosevelt’s story was redistributed by The Today Show, England’s Daily Mail and dozens of other news and social media websites.
“I was so stunned,” Fox said. “It ended up being that I had to set up a Facebook page for him. He’s got 4,000 friends from all over the world. … He’s got something like 1,000 friends from Brazil.”
Not long before Roosevelt’s fame took off, his owner had started on a downward spiral.
Fox began to get frequent headaches. She felt fatigue, and her eyesight would become inexplicably blurry. Her muscles began to cramp painfully and unexpectedly.
“Really strange things started happening,” she said. “I started losing my balance for no reason. I would just be standing there, and my legs would buckle.”
She went through a battery of tests and met with several different doctors, who at various times considered diagnoses of multiple sclerosis, poliomyelitis, degenerative disc disease and other theories.
Fox, who always checked her body and her dogs for ticks, never let any of the Lyme disease-carrying bugs stay on her skin, nor ever saw any of the bull’s-eye-shaped rashes commonly associated with a Lyme infection.
Preliminary Lyme disease tests, which Fox later learned were unreliable, came back negative. So the ailment that would ultimately nearly cripple her was dismissed as a possibility, and it was given years to spread throughout her body untreated.
“[Walking the dogs for] five miles became three, then two, then one,” she recalled. “Then I couldn’t even get past the end of my driveway. I’d walk out to the end of the driveway, and I’d have to lay down just to get the strength to walk back to the house.”
Only in late October of last year, after a specialist ordered a more sensitive test for the disease, did doctors realize Fox had Lyme, as well as the bacterial infection Bartonella.
“I was under the foolish impression that as long as [a tick] wasn’t attached for more than 24 hours, or you weren’t exhibiting other immediate symptoms, like feverish feelings or redness around the bite, you were fine,” Fox said.
They quickly put her on an antibiotic regimen with additional doses of detoxifiers charcoal and chlorella.
Her condition deteriorated further.
“I completely lost the ability to walk. I couldn’t talk,” she recalled, saying that faint noises such as the pitter-patter of her cat walking across the floor would echo in her head so loudly she would become nauseated.
After two years in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms, Fox then got a key piece of advice from an unlikely source: Roosevelt’s Facebook page.
More specifically, a woman who runs a medical lab in Ohio, whom Fox had met through the dog’s social media site. The Facebook connection recognized the symptoms and told Fox to stop taking the antibiotic Ceftin.
“If it wasn’t for her telling me to stop taking that medicine, I would’ve had a heart attack,” Fox said.
As it turned out, Fox was reacting negatively to the drug because, unbeknownst to her, she had been born with two specific genetic mutations which make her more susceptible to toxins.
Fox sought out a new doctor, and she was put on a new regimen of three different antibiotics and a series of nutritional supplements to help bolster her body’s reaction to toxins.
Another of Roosevelt’s Facebook friends, a chemist and herbalist, has helped her identify and eliminate the use of certain everyday products, such as soaps and toothpastes, that have chemicals her body would have negative reactions toward.
Fox, who at her lowest point could only stand to be upright and active for about 15 minutes a day, can now be active for as long as three hours.
“Through this illness, it’s been friends of [Roosevelt’s] on Facebook that have given me guidance,” she said.
Although Fox said she’s feeling better than she has in months, her trouble isn’t over.
According to a fundraising website started on her behalf by friend Valerie Markgren, Fox has already spent more than $20,000 out of pocket for medical treatments and “faces certain financial collapse.”
In addition to her financial crisis, Fox’ future prognosis remains unclear.
“I kind of don’t really ask [about] that far ahead anymore,” she said. “You kind of plan day-by-day. You kind of learn there are some questions you just don’t ask, because there are some things you just don’t want to know.”
For now, Fox knows that Roosevelt and the two other border collies she’d made arrangements to give away in case she didn’t wake up again are right by her side. The nearly blind Coalby seems to know when Fox needs someone to snuggle with, and the rambunctious Isadore stayed calmly by her side during long nights when Fox was too sick to leave the bathroom floor.
And Roosevelt? He didn’t let his disability slow him down, and he seems committed to helping his owner get through her adversity, too.
“Roosevelt is the go-getter,” she said. “He knows just when to push me and just when to hang back.”
Reflecting on her dog’s rise in notoriety and how that, in a roundabout way, connected her with specialists who could help her, Fox marveled at “how it all just kind of fell into place.” With Roosevelt laying contently across her lap, his deformed legs dangling weakly, she said something that might be considered surprising coming from a person battling a debilitating illness.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think,” Fox said, “and I don’t know how I ended up being so lucky.”