Mike and Connie Gunderson will enjoy the traditional lutefisk with his parents on Christmas Eve at the Gunderson farm. They will spend Christmas Day with Connie’s parents, another long-standing tradition.
Mike and Connie have much to be thankful for, but they will notice an empty spot. Their daughter Amanda, who gave birth to their first grandchild, Keith, in September, now lives with her husband, Eric, who is stationed in Hawaii with the U.S. Army.
The Gundersons met while attending a 4-H Washington Focus trip in 1984, and they married three years later. They live on Mike’s family farm near Bejou, Minn., in Mahnomen County, where they raise beef cattle, corn, soybeans and wheat.
The couple has faced medical challenges throughout their marriage.
“The first seven years Connie was hospitalized or had surgery every year,” Mike recalled. Then five years ago, at age 38, she underwent a four-bypass heart surgery.
Connie experienced a tough recovery because she contracted an infection. Then three months later, doctors implanted a stent. She also deals with diabetes, but after recovering from heart surgery, she was back doing all the things she loved to do.
Life changed forever for the Gunderson family Jan. 24, 2009, when Connie suffered a massive stroke that put her in a coma for five days. During that time, doctors presented Mike with conflicting prognoses of Connie’s future, and he was forced to face quality-of-life issues.
The couple fought an uphill battle as Connie worked her way through rehab and therapy. Doctors questioned if she would ever walk again, but she progressed faster than predicted. She came home, walking, six or seven weeks after the stroke.
Today she is even able to drive a car short distances. Looking back, Mike said, “The toughest time was when she came home. It was a week before calving season. I was worn pretty thin.”
In addition to his farm responsibilities, Mike had to take over many of Connie’s household duties. The stroke left Connie with limited use of her right arm — she’s right-handed — and a very limited vocabulary. Mike is learning to read her mind because voice inflection and gestures can’t always communicate what she is thinking.
Mike’s turn for heart surgery came Sept. 30. He realizes now that he didn’t recognize other symptoms when he saw his doctor in late-August because of chest pains. The surgeon performed a double bypass because of 100 percent blockage and calcification.
September is not the ideal time for a farmer to have major surgery, but on Oct. 10, neighbors, with five combines and a total of 145 feet of headers, combined 100 acres of soybeans.
“That was a relief,” Mike said. “My teenage son Tim was struggling with my combine.”
As of Nov. 21, Mike still had some corn to harvest, but because of wet soil, he’s waiting for a hard freeze to finish harvest.
Listening to Mike share his story makes listeners’ hearts ache for the Gundersons, but Mike smiles as he tells how friends and family stood by them during difficult times and how civic organizations provided financial support.
He has learned that life may be challenging, but he also knows that he can’t change anything.
“You have to accept it. You cannot look back and say, ‘Woe is me.’”