Mount Pleasant couple copes with multiple sclerosis, inspires others with disabilities
Dan Digmann felt a little out of place when he first met his wife seven years ago.
It was at a special program for people with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that affects roughly 400,000 Americans.
The day-long program was originally intended for women only, but the organizers forgot to announce that. Digmann showed up to find he was one of a few men there.
The staff referred him to a table where Jennifer, his future wife, and another young individual with MS, sat.
“He walked into a program intended for women, so I expected him to be a boyfriend or a husband of some woman,” Jennifer said. “It was love at first sight for him, and I was just smitten.”
As the conversation warmed up, the two realized they had a lot more in common than just MS, including a competitive love for fantasy football, Bruce Springsteen and sports in general.
The couple married in 2005 and now live in Mount Pleasant.
Since then, the two have been a driving force behind disability awareness in the mid-Michigan area and beyond.
Jennifer was first diagnosed with MS in 1997 and lost her ability to walk several years later. Dan was diagnosed in 2000 and has a different form of the chronic illness. He still remains physically active.
“We’re like night and day, just the opposite ends of the spectrum of the disease,” Dan said. “MS affects everybody differently.”
Running over adversity
Dan spends much of his off-time training for long-distance races, despite the advice of his doctor who originally told him to take the exercise lightly.
Point well taken, but point well ignored, Dan said. If there was anything he could do to prove he was stronger than MS, it was running for miles.
“Running is like a litmus test of how I how I am doing,” Dan said. “If I’m still running well at a decent pace, then the disease hasn’t gotten to me yet.”
During lengthy jogs, he has a tendency to start dragging his left foot.
One night on South Mission Street, not too far into his run, Dan fell face-first into the pavement.
Five stitches and another fall later, he suddenly felt pessimistic about the disease’s condition. Dragging his left foot was a common issue he learned to deal with, but he rarely fell. Could it be the illness was finally catching up to him?
Jennifer had a different theory about the problem’s cause.
“I told him, ‘It’s those stupid shoes — I’m getting you a new pair,’” she said.
Sure enough, it was the shoes. The couple bought a new pair and the tumbles came to a halt.
Feelings of uncertainty toward Dan’s future still lingered, however.
Earlier this year, Dan surprised himself during an eight-kilometer run at the Crim Festival of Races in Flint. He finished ninth out of 31 participants in his age group and 166th out of more than 750 runners.
It was a pinnacle achievement for an athlete who had developed serious fears during the months leading up to the race.
No strangers to CMU
The pair can now be seen taking graduate courses in different academic halls throughout Central Michigan University.
Originally from Iowa, Dan has become more than acquaintances with the local Mount Pleasant community.
He has been employed by CMU for the past decade. As assistant director of creative services, he serves as a writer and editor for many of the university’s publications.
Although Jennifer is newer to the area, she has been surprised at the level of accommodation students and residences have offered her.
“They really do what they can to make things accessible (for people with disabilities),” she said. “I don’t ever encourage people to get disabled but, if you get disabled, this is the nicest community.”
The couple has a group of caregivers who assist Jennifer around the house while Dan works. Jennifer enjoys handing much of the daily activities on her own, including grocery shopping and cooking.
Both the Digmanns travel around the state to take part in various speaking engagements. The two spoke at CMU during the Disability Awareness Fair in October.
Dan hopes people take what the couple says and apply it to their own lives. While most of the audience members may not be disabled, the general theme of the speeches is to take a positive perspective on life.
Jennifer recalls the day when she was first diagnosed with MS. The thought of being in a wheelchair at the time was not a pleasant one, but she said it is something she has been able to adapt to.
“When you are newly diagnosed with this disease, I am the picture of the disease that scares the crap out of you,” she said. “But if you look at me, I’m happy. Thank God that I still have as much as I have.”
Life lessons learned
With 21 combined years of experience with the disease, Dan and Jennifer have learned one useful lesson: Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Jennifer said, at first, that is one of the most difficult parts of dealing with being in a wheelchair. However, after a certain amount of time, she found everyone she asked was willing to do simple favors, such as grabbing an item from the top shelf at a grocery store.
It also is an easy opportunity for people to feel good about themselves, Dan said.
The two are reluctant to use the word “inspiration” to define the way they impact other people. Instead, they prefer “hope.”
“When you hear people talk about the good you have done and what your story has done, it’s very humbling,” Dan said. “That’s what inspires us to be more vocal with our stories.”