When people say, "my pet saved my life" they usually mean it figuratively. But Nancy Laracy's pet, a rabbit born immunocompromised, offered more than just comfort, distraction and inspiration during bouts of severe muscle pain from fibromyalgia and joint pain from mixed connective tissue disease. Her pet rabbit, Bunnyboy, also helped to literally save her life.

It all began during a blizzard in 2001 when Nancy and her kids set out for the neighborhood pet store to purchase crickets for the family’s pet bearded-dragon lizard. But Nancy left with something more – Fluffet, (later renamed Bunnyboy) part of a new litter of soft, red satin rabbits. On first impression, Nancy admits, "I melted. To this day, I can't explain it. It's as if I just needed this bunny."

Rabbits instinctively fear humans. But Nancy – who'd intended the new pet would live in a cage in the kitchen – quickly noticed hers was unusually affectionate and responsive. From the start, she carried him everywhere, snug against her chest on a burp cloth. Housetrained easily, he soon got run of the house. When Nancy felt ill, Bunnyboy curled up beside her. He became the third child that Nancy, from a large family, had longed for.

"He wouldn't leave my side. That animal took me away from my darkest places."

Down the Rabbit Hole

Now 53, Nancy hadn't so much as read Pat the Bunny when her health saga began. During her first pregnancy, in 1989, she had persistent fevers and joint pain, symptoms of which were eventually diagnosed as Fifth disease, a common childhood infection caused by the parvovirus B19 (also called "slapped cheek syndrome" for its signature bright facial rash). Time marched on, and her daughter Julie was born healthy, and four years later, her son Chris. Vivacious and active, the Franklin Lakes, N.J., resident says she’s a “type A on steroids" who loved jogging, community voluntarism and being a full-time, hands-on mom.

At age 2-and-a-half, her son Chris was also diagnosed with Fifth disease. In tandem, Nancy and her son spiked a fever. Chris just had a cold with a low-grade fever. "And 48 hours later, I woke up crippled by excruciating joint pain," she says. "I could barely walk or close my hands."  Baffled, her doctors were unable to infer the problem.

"At the Center for Joint Diseases in New York City, I was told I had some 'funky' virus but they couldn't figure out which one," says Nancy. Doctors said they could only manage her symptoms with medications.

This was simply unacceptable, says Nancy. Back then she didn’t have a home computer, so she called her alma mater, William Paterson College in Wayne, N.J., to ask a student to do some research. The student forwarded articles from The Lancet describing promising use of intravenous gamma globulin to treat acute parvovirus B19 in Europe. Nancy's doctor pooh-poohed the findings.

Not good enough again. Not to be deterred, she called the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta about the studies. The CDC helped her find a more receptive rheumatologist. Eventually, she received a series of gamma globulin treatments as part of a study. Her flu-like symptoms receded. (Parvovirus B19 is now known to cause acute bilateral arthropathy of the knees, hands, ankles, and wrists; most severely in women, and to be the agent behind many cases of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.)

Though Nancy's active virus stopped replicating in her DNA, she'd sustained two years of nervous system damage. Some days, she could barely crawl out of bed. Still, she hauled herself to every school event. She planned fun midwinter picnics in the living room, all so her kids wouldn't think of her as "sick mommy."

Enter Bunnyboy

Who knows why a particular animal and a human "click"? Incredibly enough, Bunnyboy turned out to be as immunocompromised as Nancy. Before he turned a year old, he was diagnosed with a chronic infection that causes abscesses, dangerous cavities of pus and inflamed tissue that are common in rabbits. Surgery to drain the abscesses is tricky because rabbits don't take anesthesia well; they succumb to fear and pain more quickly than other pets. The vet gave Bunnyboy a few months to live.

Nancy refused to accept the prognosis and went into the same fighter-mode as for her own health crises. She pushed for the operation, and Bunnyboy recovered with surprising ease. When an abscess returned in his jaw two years later, in 2003, her vet had grown impressed enough with this stalwart bunny to search for cutting-edge treatments. At the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, she discovered, researchers had devised a way to implant a new kind of antibiotic beads into the bone below an abscess, delivering treatment more effectively. Bunnyboy became one of the first rabbits to receive the experimental surgery. It worked.

A Give-and-Take Connection

A pattern soon developed. Nancy helped Bunnyboy navigate his medications, MRIs, CT scans, a second surgery for more abscesses, and even two episodes of cardiac arrest. Sometimes she had to hand-feed him by syringe and give penicillin shots, and because he trusted her completely, he thrived. Bunnyboy, in turn, spurred his owner to endure her own pain and therapies, which ranged from acupuncture and allergy testing to underwater treadmill treatments, a second round of intravenous gamma globulin, and more.

"He was going through one thing after another, as much as I was, and he seemed to be handling it better than me!" says Nancy.

Each time the vet warned that Bunnyboy might not survive yet another procedure, he shocked everyone (except Nancy) by bouncing back. The vet called him "Iron Bunny." "He had a lightheartedness bunnies shouldn't have," Nancy says.

In 2008, Nancy developed a new problem – a small bubble of skin on her gums that doctors initially feared was cancer. Instead, it was something equally life-threatening, given her severely compromised immune system: a massive infection deep in her jawbone, caused by a tooth infection run amok. A lowered resistance to infection is a side effect of the Enbrel she takes for her inflammatory disease.

She had to laugh: Bunnyboy had received the exact same diagnosis four years earlier. But the treatment stunned her: Surgery to implant a new type of antibiotic beads deep in her jaw had just been FDA-approved for oral surgery on humans. It was the same treatment that researchers had pioneered on Bunnyboy.

A year later, at age 9 – seven years later than forecast in his sickly infancy – Bunnyboy died in Nancy's arms, of natural old age.

"People with chronic pain are sometimes afraid of the extra work involved with having a pet – but the love they give you in return also gives you the strength to care for them," says Nancy, who is now writing a book.

"I've learned through my painful medical journey and my wonderful journey with Bunnyboy that you have to be an advocate for your own health and fight back with everything you have. And I learned that giving love and receiving love can help you triumph over anything, including chronic pain and illness."

Nancy now has a new rabbit named Muffin. The two continue to rely on each other, while helping others as well. Nancy and Muffin are an active animal therapy team who visits schools for the handicapped, rehabilitation centers and homes for the elderly. They recently visited the Children's Adventure Center Preschool, which shares the same driveway with Sandy Hook Elementary School where 26 students, teachers and administrators were shot and killed Dec. 14, 2012. The preschool director, Judy Sims, has fibromyalgia and struggles to get up everyday now even more to run the preschool where seven of the Sandy Hook student victims had attended preschool the previous year.

“As Judy and I hugged at the end of the day, we both agreed that the day was just as therapeutic for us as it was for the children,” says Nancy. “Our pain melted away at least temporarily watching the children with Muffin.”

Love, it seems, is truly blind, to color, gender, situation – and species.