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Couple born with spina bifida face challenges together

Denise said there are days when she looks at their wedding pictures she doesn't see wheelchairs or handicaps, but she sees "...two perople who are in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together". Herald photo by John Stennes.1 / 2
Denise and Joe2 / 2

When she looks at her wedding pictures, Denise Gunderson doesn't see the wheelchairs or the handicap that put her and her husband in them.

"I see two people who are in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together," she said. "For that one day, I was normal."

That was June 25, 2011. Denise LaBine and Joe Gunderson married at Hope Evangelical Church in Grand Forks -- she in a beautiful, beaded, ivory gown and he in a black tux, both beaming. Their parents are Marilyn and Glen LaBine of Grand Forks and Cinder and Bill Gunderson of Bathgate, N.D.

Denise and Joe were born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder caused by incomplete closing of the neural tube in fetal development. The malformation can be surgically closed after birth, but this does not restore normal function to the affected part of the spinal cord. It generally results in partial paralysis and may present other complications.

They were born five days apart -- Joe on Jan. 5 and Denise on Jan. 10, 1981. Ultrasound, which could have foretold the condition, was not prevalent at that time, said Cinder Gunderson.

"We were a surprise to both our parents," Denise said.

How they met

Denise was featured in a newsletter published in the winter of 1984 by the UND Rehabilitation Hospital, now part of Altru Health System. Joe's mother happened to read the article and reached out to Denise's mother, first by letter.

When she read Marilyn LaBine's words, Cinder Gunderson said, "I thought this person would be a good friend for me."

Their children met when LaBine invited the Gundersons to her home. The women became friends, as did their families.

"We just clicked," said LaBine. "We have similar personalities and values. I think it helped her; it certainly helped me.

"All parents benefit from the support of other parents who are experiencing this kind of thing."

Their visits, including Joe and Denise, continued for years. They encouraged each other as they coped with the disorder that requires ongoing treatment by physicians, physical and occupational therapists, and other specialists.

"You deal with a lot of health issues, a lot of surgical procedures," Joe said.

Challenges shared

Through the years, especially in school, when it can be difficult to be different, Denise said she was glad to have family and friends, especially Joe.

"I knew Joe was out there. Just knowing I had a friend who would accept me no matter what, that was a comfort for me," she said.

It is evident that their strong Christian faith is a source of strength, even through tough times.

"God's got my back, so to speak," Joe said. "I just keep on keeping on."

Good friends through high school, they attended each other's proms and graduated -- she from Red River and he from Neche (N.D.) High School.

"I knew I liked girls and I wanted one," Joe said. "In high school, I just wanted them to talk to me.

"I always thought I would marry, as much as any guy thinks about that."

Denise wasn't as certain, she said. "I wondered, would anyone want me with my health issues, my daily struggles?" And the financial burden can be daunting.

After graduation, they took their own paths for a few years, said Marilyn LaBine. "When they reconnected through email, it was very natural. It was such a good thing. It's very special to see that.

"They're like two peas in a pod."

How she knew

Theirs was a long courtship; they dated for 10 years.

During that time, in 2006, Denise developed a major pressure sore, deterioration of the skin caused by staying in one position too long.

"Joe was a real strength," she said. "I remember, I just looked at him and asked, 'Why would you want to be with someone who has all these health issues?' And he said, 'There's more to you than your health issues.'

"I knew then that he was the one."

Even when he began to seriously consider marriage, Joe said, "It didn't happen sooner because we didn't have a place that was big enough to handle us."

Then, when his parents found the townhome where the couple now lives, Joe wondered whether he could afford it.

"She has health issues, and will, and I will too," he said. "I wondered, is this feasible? How's this going to work?

"God probably helped me. I thought, 'You can do this.'"

About the decision to marry, he said, "I probably knew it a few years before I actually asked her."

For Denise's part, she said, "It took maturity."

That was gained during two-and-a-half months she spent at the Courage Center in the Twin Cities where she learned independent living skills.

"The night before I was going to go, I watched Joe leave, went to my room and just sobbed. I didn't know when I was going to see him again."

Becoming independent

For most of her life, she'd lived with her parents.

Joe wanted to see if Denise could live independently, he said.

"I came back stronger, more independent, more assertive," she said. In Grand Forks, she lived several years in an apartment for disabled people.

Today, Denise is a homemaker and Joe works in customer service for Amazon, driving to work in a specially equipped vehicle. Their parents remodeled the couple's townhome to accommodate their special needs.

"They're making their life," said Cinder Gunderson, "and that's exciting."

Denise's condition influenced her siblings, growing up; both pursued medical careers. Janell Dailey is a pediatrician and Brian, a sports-medicine physician. Janell's husband, Ryan, is a critical-care physician.

Denise is pleased that her and Joe's nieces and nephews understand and are comfortable around disabled people because of time spent with them, she said.

When asked what he most appreciates about Denise, Joe said, "Her faith is big to her; I like that. She's a strong woman. The things she has to deal with, I don't know if I could deal with them.

"She's a good pick."

Denise hopes their story will inspire others who grapple with disabilities, she said. "It's a huge victory. Yes, even though I'm disabled, I have a husband.

"Maybe there's another couple out there, or a handicapped person, who will see this and say, 'Hey, if they can make it, why can't we?'"