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Grand Forks woman affirms value of friendship shines through life’s ups, downs

Jolene Dunphy (right) with her "earth angel" Judy Johnson. The two Grand Forks women have been friends since they met as first-grader at New Rockford, N.D.Elementary School 54 years ago.1 / 3
Jolene Dunphy (right) and her "earth angel" Judy Johnson reminisce about their childhood as the look at old photographs recently in Dunphy's Grand Forks home. When Dunphy was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2002 she says Johnson was immediately at her side and told her, "we'll get through this".JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD2 / 3
Attending Campfire Girls camp in summer 1964 at Lake Trowbridge near Vergas, Minn., was one of many experiences Jolene (Bergan) Dunphy (left) and Judy (Parker) Johnson, then both 11, shared during their childhood. Submitted photo. 3 / 3

She met one 54 years ago on her first day of first grade at New Rockford (N.D.) Elementary School.

Judy Johnson is her “earth angel” with whom she forged “a lifelong bond,” she said.     

“An angel is someone who is with you whenever you need, in sick times and bad times,” Jolene said.

Through the years, Judy’s “positive, encouraging attitude kept me afloat during the lumps and bumps of practicing being an adult,” Jolene wrote in an email to the Herald.

Except for five years, the women have lived in the same community, now Grand Forks.

In all but third grade, they were in the same classroom at New Rockford Elementary, Jolene said.

“We turned from knobby-kneed little girls into girls who were learning about themselves, looking for the right dream to strive towards, and doing our best to grow up.”

Judy’s friendship with Jolene “goes pretty deep,” she said. “There’s that history. That really cements it. You’ve got that connection.”

“We have a lot of things in common,” Jolene said.

Friendships with roots that deep may be unusual in this day and age, Judy said.

“I think in North Dakota, it probably happens more. There’s a bond. You meet people from other states, where it seems friends don’t keep connected.” 

Raised in homes a block apart, Judy and Jolene have fond memories of shared activities like cheerleading, sleepovers, Bible camp and Campfire Girls.

They were confirmed together, graduated high school together, and roomed together and joined the same sorority at UND.

Parkinson’s disease

But her friend was probably never more appreciated than in late 2002 when, at age 49, Jolene was stunned to learn she had Parkinson’s disease.

“I was devastated. I felt like my world was collapsing in front of me,” she said. “You have no idea what’s ahead at all.”

Judy “was immediately at my side. She gave me a hug and said, ‘we’ll get through this.’”   

“There are not very many people in this world who have someone they can turn to and say, ‘help,’ and they’ll come. She’s a true friend.” 

Jolene has had to cope with the effects of Parkinson’s disease including rigidity in her muscles and fatigue.

She never had the tremors that the disease is known for, she said. But she sometimes has to take tiny, shuffling steps.

“We have to remind her to take big steps,” Judy said. “Sometimes, she can’t walk, but she runs.”    

Judy also reminds her friend of others who have lived a long time with Parkinson’s and enjoyed a good quality of life.

She knew “a lady — a tiny lady, like Jolene — who hid it for a long time,” Judy said.

“I’m not going to hide it,” Jolene said.

As she’s shuffling out of big sporting events, for example, “she knows people are staring at her,” Judy said. “I’d probably just stay home.”        

Brain surgery

In August 2012, Jolene underwent an eight-hour brain surgery for Parkinson’s which required her to be awake throughout, so she could respond to the surgeon’s verbal instructions for physical movements to assure that stimulation via electrodes was being aimed at the correct location in the brain.  

Jolene elected to have surgery because “I wanted to be able to walk, to see my grandkids,” she said.

Judy was one of the first whom Terry Dunphy, Jolene’s husband, called to update after the surgery. 

“We were so excited for her,” Judy said. “There was great anticipation of what we thought would be this miracle.”

They were cautioned, though, that improvements would take time because the brain had to heal, Judy said. 

A pacemaker-like device, implanted in her chest, sends electrical stimulation via implanted wires to the brain, Jolene said. The level of stimulation must be “fine-tuned” for best results — not too high, not too low.  

At first, results seemed to be “not as impressive as we hoped for,” Judy said, because the initial stimulation level had been set too high.

But since then, with proper medication adjustment and regular monitoring, Jolene realized she has benefitted from surgery, she said.

“The main thing is that (the device) lessens the (amount of) medication she has to take,” which will preserve Jolene’s health long-term, she said.  

Because of her friendship with Judy, Jolene said her trials with the disease have been easier to handle. “She makes things seem not as bad.” 

“I couldn’t do this without her,” she said. “I couldn’t do a lot of things without her.”

Judy is “very proud” of how Jolene has handled the challenges of Parkinson’s disease, she said. “She doesn’t let it get her down. It doesn’t slow her down.”

Dreams saved 

Looking back at another critical juncture, Jolene said, her life may have taken a different direction had it not been for her earth angel. 

As a college student, Jolene struggled academically with her nursing courses, probably because of insufficient science preparation, she said. Johnson, who also was studying to be a nurse, encouraged her to stick with her dream.

“I had doubts,” Jolene said. She considered taking an alternative course to become an X-ray technician or elementary school teacher, even though “I wanted nursing bad.”   

Judy, with her positive attitude, put things into perspective.

Jolene said, “I remember her saying, ‘you can do this if you put your mind and heart into it. I will help you. She said, ‘you have the perfect personality for nursing; you are kind, caring and a great listener. 

“It’s the person who can relate to people, showing them you care — not the straight A’s (student) — who makes a good nurse.’” 

With her friend’s help, Jolene earned her nursing degree and has worked nearly 40 years as a school nurse for the Grand Forks school system and Head Start program. She taught Lamaze classes for expectant parents for 18 years at Altru Health System.

“I am very proud of what she’s done in nursing, her years with Head Start and school nursing,” said Judy, recalling the “struggle” in college.      

The women were in each other’s weddings. Each takes some credit for setting the other up with her spouse.

Even though Jolene was six months pregnant at the time of Judy’s wedding, her bridesmaid dress “was made to fit,” Jolene said. “We wore (high) Empire waist (dresses) back then.”

When Judy and Robert Johnson returned to Grand Forks in 1981, they moved into a house within a block of Jolene’s, unbeknownst to either couple.  

As adults, they’ve made more memories with several trips to major U.S. cities and celebrations on milestone birthdays, they said.

Judy is the kind of friend who makes conversation easy, Jolene said. “You pick up from where you left off.” 

On days that haven’t gone too well, Judy brings “a lightness of heart as you confide in her with a problem,” Jolene said.

“She’s very special. How many people’s lives she has inspired we may never know … She is someone you can trust with anything, no matter what.” 

Jolene’s earth angel “makes my days a little brighter and my problems a whole lot smaller.” 

The fact that friendship is given voluntarily and freely sets it apart from other relationships, according to Dr. Paul Wright, UND professor emeritus of psychology, who devoted much of his career to the study of friendship.  

“It’s free of social requirements or restraints,” he said. “You get away from roles and expectations.”

This makes friendship different from other, more structured relationships, such as in marriage or the workplace, “where there are certain things you have to do to fulfill your role — things you may not want to do, but you do them anyway,” he said. “You’re obligated.”

A friend “is reacting to you in terms of individuality of the whole person — based on what you do together — not responding to a particular role a person plays.”   

Friendship “develops in such a natural way,” he said. “People don’t decide, ‘OK, from now on we’re going to be friends.’”

Likewise, unless there’s a breach of trust or betrayal, friendships don’t usually end dramatically or suddenly.

“Friendships don’t always last,” he said. “When a friend moves away, most of the time the friendship fades.” 

Lasting friendships rely on “maintaining that personal interest in the other person, that continued contact,” Wright said.  

Friendship provides several “rewards,” including “security value” which Wright said “is based on trust, absolute trust.”

Another is “ego support, which reinforces a person’s accomplishments and self-worth, makes them feel good about what they do.”

It also offers “stimulation value,” he said. “Someone who always agrees with you only reinforces your own viewpoint.”

Some people need continual affirmation of their ideas and beliefs, he said, but others need the stimulation and growth that comes from friends with differing ideas.

Friendship meets “instrumental needs,” such as help with tasks and “social and emotional needs such as companionship, a listening ear and support,” Wright said.

“Friendship is so flexible,” he said. “At any given time, it requires as much intimacy, depth and sharing as (a person) is comfortable with.”

Giving to another in friendship “is not my ‘job,’” he said. “I just do it. And that’s one of the things that makes it just beautiful.”