If you live in Colorado Springs and are into canines and craft beer, you may be familiar with Tara Downs and how she found a way to teach an old dog new tricks with Pub Dog Colorado, the state's first restaurant where it's legal to eat indoors with your pup.

Creating that space without trodding on health regulations wasn't easy. It took time. But Downs did it. The proof of woof opened to diners of all leg tallies in April 2017.

What you probably don't know about Pub Dog's 34-year-old owner is that the public hurdles she faced as a first-time restaurateur with a unique (and seemingly code-defying) vision were nothing compared to what she'd already overcome on a far more personal front.

Downs was 25 in late 2009 when she awoke one morning to find her balance was "off."

On a walk with her dog, she kept feeling the tug to stumble to her right. She dismissed it and went on to work that day at her restaurant job, for a shift marked by uncharacteristic clumsiness.

"I kept dropping wine glasses and running into chairs with my hips," she said. "I just figured I must be tired."

Three days later, she bent to feed her dog and toppled over. A visit to the emergency room, and an MRI, confirmed the presence of brain lesions indicative of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own myelin sheaths, the insulating barriers that surround and protect nerves. When those sheaths are damaged, the nerves' communication with the brain is interrupted and "things just stop working," said Downs.

For doctors to conclusively diagnose MS, however, patients must have experienced more than one episode. Downs was sent home with expert opinions and enough room for denial.

"I didn't accept that was what I had, and I was in this place where I just wanted to see what my body was doing. I didn't want to put drugs in it," she said. "I decided to ride it out."

However, by Christmas of that year her right side had stopped working "entirely." She couldn't write or eat using her dominant hand and needed her mom's help to undress and bathe.

The experience was "very very scary," Downs said, and cued a period of depression - and soul-searching - that continued after the symptoms abated after about six weeks and stayed that way for more than a year.

Despite what she'd been through, Downs allowed herself to hope: Maybe she'd been misdiagnosed.

In 2011, though, she lost sight in her left eye.

That experience "confirmed the MS diagnosis," and ultimately spurred Downs to begin the drug therapy, and acceptance, that would allow her to move on, and thrive, in a new reality.

"The medication I am on now basically shuts down my body's response the best it can," she said. Managing the disease also has meant getting, and staying, in touch wth the nuances of her body, and recognizing the tell-tale signs - sluggishness, exhaustion - that might foreshadow an "episode."

"I still deal with it, but that's not what defines me. It's a piece of me - a big piece in terms of how I make decisions - but it's not all of me," Downs said. "And that's the message I want to get out is you can live a very wonderful, full-functioning life with MS ... especially with groups like the National MS Society out there helping."

Pub Dog's Tuesday pint night fundraiser and first-ever tap takeover, by Left Hand Brewing Co., is a giveback to the nonprofit that Downs said helped her learn to live with the disease, emotionally, physically and financially. A dollar from each pint sold Tuesday goes to the Bike MS program of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to fund research, advocacy and assistance programs for people with MS and their families.

"I've been really lucky. The MS Society has lots of resources for people like me, which is great because trying to figure out what the heck is happening to you is really hard," Downs said. "Most people don't know I have MS, and I think this is an interesting way to bring awareness. I feel blessed to be able to give back like this."


Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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