When Dan and Jennifer Digmann met in 2002 at an event for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Dan wasn’t really supposed to be there. Jennifer had helped create a program for women with multiple sclerosis to aid in their career development, and men weren’t initially invited. But when the event expanded to include men, a friend pushed Dan to go. As soon he locked eyes with Jennifer, the two were smitten.
“On the day of the program, I was watching people filter in, and this cute man walked in,” Jennifer, 44, tells PEOPLE.
“When I saw her, I thought, oh, I better bring my A-game because she’s really cute,” Dan, 46, adds.
The pair instantly connected, and “didn’t want the program to be the last time we saw each other,” Jennifer says, so they exchanged email addresses and phone numbers to bridge the two-hour drive between their two homes in Iowa and Michigan.
They bonded quickly over email, talking about their shared experiences living with multiple sclerosis, or MS.
“We were serious right from the beginning,” Jennifer says.
Adds Dan: “You start to think about how, as two people with MS, we could make a marriage work,” since it can be a hurdle for two spouses with MS be each other’s primary caregivers.
They have now been married for 14 years, with two lifetimes of managing MS between them.
Jennifer was diagnosed with MS in 1997, eight days after her 23rd birthday.
“I had numbness in my feet, so my doctor first said I had poor choice in footwear,” she says. “But I of course still had it, plus numbness in my hands, a few months later, and my doctor then said it was because of homework and studying. When I started my first job I had double vision, and an ophthalmologist was actually the first person to mention it could be MS, and I was diagnosed soon after.”
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Dan, meanwhile, was diagnosed with MS in 2000, when he was 27. He initially thought the numbness in his hands, feet and chest were from playing basketball, until a doctor determined he had the nervous system disease.
“When I heard that the cause of my symptoms was likely MS, I was devastated because it wasn’t like the common cold; it wasn’t something that was going to go away,” he says. “But when I got diagnosed, a few months later I was very relieved to have a formal diagnosis so I could treat the disease.”
But for both of them, to be diagnosed in the late ’90s and early ’00s was “scary.”
“If you think way back to 1997, the internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is now,” Jennifer says. “There wasn’t a lot of information out there, and a lot of it was very woe-is-me. I was scared. I wasn’t sure what my future would be like.”
They both became involved with the MS community, and after marrying in 2005, they wanted to share their story to give “hope” to some of the 1 million others in the U.S. living with the disease.
“We both had this story to share,” Dan says. “MS is a scary disease, and once you’re diagnosed with it there can be a tendency to shut yourself out of the world. We wanted to help people see that MS doesn’t spell the end of your life — we often say that we don’t feel like our lives began until we were diagnosed. But we don’t want to sugarcoat anything, just be real about this disease and what can happen.”
In their case, that means not only surviving, but thriving. “We want people to know that you can make it with this disease,” Jennifer says. “When we met there were only three medications to treat MS, and now there are more than 15. That is incredible progress in 20 years. So there is hope.”
The couple, who live in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., are now collaborating with Celgene and MSAA on the MSMindShift program to raise awareness of the disease, and “just living our life,” says Dan.
“We don’t want anyone to think we’re doing anything out of reach,” he says. “We find ways to travel and enjoy our lives, and we want to show that you can have two people with MS being primary caregivers with their spouses.”
They’re also hopeful about new treatments and advancements, particularly for Jennifer, who has been wheelchair-bound since 2002.
“I’m not walking now, but I wake up every day with the hope that one day I will walk again, and my husband is right there with me,” she says.