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Maria Shriver

My Project: Ann Romney

You know her as the former First Lady of Massachusetts, and as the wife of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but today Ann Romney assumes a new role, that of global ambassador for the newly announced Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The center, which will open in 2016, is a collaborative, global initiative dedicated to accelerating treatments and cures for for five of the world’s most complex neurologic diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors.

And for Mrs. Romney, the mission is personal. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, the mother of five and grandmother to twenty-two, knows firsthand the fear that accompanies neurologic disease, and the hope that is its counterweight.

Here, Mrs. Romney reflects on the moment of her own diagnosis and shares her determination to do all that she can to help those suffering today and to change outcomes for future generations.

What motivated you to get involved in this work?

I know firsthand how terrifying and devastating these neurologic diseases can be. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998 while Mitt and I were living in Boston. The disease was progressing rapidly. I was so fatigued I was barely able to walk, and my right side had gone numb. Beyond anything else, I was very frightened.

I know firsthand how terrifying and devastating these neurologic diseases can be.

In my darkest hour, Dr. Weiner at Brigham and Women’s Hospital was a source of inspiration and hope. Placing my disease in Dr. Weiner’s care allowed me to focus on getting better.

As I traveled across the country, I met and heard from so many people also suffering from neurologic diseases. They were frightened and expressed a sense of hopelessness. Their voices and faces have stayed with me, and they are my motivation for this work.

Dr. Weiner at Brigham and Women’s Hospital gave my family and me reason to feel hopeful about the future, which inspired us to do the same thing for others through the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases. The center is an innovative global initiative, dedicated to accelerating treatment, prevention and cures for five of the world’s most complex and devastating neurologic diseases: multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors.

What have you been most surprised to learn?

Researchers are beginning to open up the secrets of the brain and, for the first time, have new tools to better understand diseases that affect the nervous system. Although MS, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors all manifest in different ways, they actually share certain common mechanisms or pathways for treatment.

We are seeing that many of today’s most promising advancements in neurologic disease occur when research in one disease state is applied to other disease states.

We are seeing that many of today’s most promising advancements in neurologic disease occur when research in one disease state is applied to other disease states. This cross-disease collaboration is yielding breakthroughs that could not have occurred if the research remained in silos. The Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases is focused on taking an integrated approach across all five disease states in order to break down silos and accelerate innovations and discoveries.

What do you most want people to know?

Collectively, MS, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors affect more than 50 million people worldwide and are among the most complex and devastating neurologic diseases of our time. This center will provide hope and empowerment for those facing a heart-breaking diagnosis. I will work tirelessly to support the center’s efforts to accelerate research, treatments and cures for these diseases.

Collectively, MS, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors affect more than 50 million people worldwide.

I encourage people to visit BWHAnnRomneyCenter.org to learn more about the center and its mission, as well as clinical trials and ways to join the effort.

Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?

I have been honored to work closely with Howard L. Weiner, M.D. and Dennis J. Selkoe, M.D., who are the co-leaders of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases. They are two of the world’s most renowned experts in the field of neurologic disease.

Dr. Weiner is a recognized global leader in MS clinical care and research who has expanded his team’s efforts and applied his expertise to the study of Alzheimer’s, ALS and brain tumors. Dr. Selkoe is one of the world’s preeminent experts in Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Selkoe and his team developed the knowledge base of amyloid beta that has driven much of the world’s Alzheimer’s research to date.

Dr. Weiner and Dr. Selkoe had the vision to bring their laboratories together in 1985 to break down silos and work more collaboratively across their respective areas of expertise. They have nearly 30 years of experience harnessing the power of collaboration to drive innovation and discover solutions.

What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has it most challenged you?

One of the biggest challenges in fueling new research and advancements is funding, particularly because funding for neurologic disease research remains flat – and even shows decline in some areas – year over year. There is no limit to the time, energy and passion that the researchers, scientists and clinicians at the center are willing to put into this effort, but they need the resources to do their life-changing work. My hope is that everyone that shares our vision to find faster cures for neurologic diseases will join us in this effort.

How has this work changed you?

Serving as the global ambassador for the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases has inspired in me excitement and hopefulness for the advancements and breakthroughs on the horizon for neurologic disease. I want to do everything in my power to help those confronting neurologic disease and change outcomes for future generations.

What goal do you have for the next 12 months?

My focus for the coming year is to raise awareness and funding for the work being done at the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases to accelerate research and treatments that will ultimately lead to cures. I want to help bring these devastating neurologic diseases to the forefront of public attention, inspiring hope for patients and families in need.

For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com