By the time Ashley Nicole Hooper and Sean Michael Balaban met on Valentine’s Day in 2015, they had both learned how difficult it can be to maintain a relationship and deal with chronic health issues at the same time.
Ms. Hooper, 30, has ulcerative colitis, diagnosed in college. Mr Balaban, 33, has type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, diagnosed when he was 11 and 16.
“It can be quite difficult to find a partner who understands and understands the nuances of coping with these conditions,” said Ms. Hooper.
The two met at a party hosted by Mr. Balaban’s rugby team at Moose Lodge 1558 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. He approached Mrs. Hooper after hearing her tell her not to drink beer if someone offered to get her one. “I slipped right in,” said Mr Balaban, who also can’t drink beer.
Ms Hooper added: “We quickly had something to stitch over and were immediately strapped to the hip.”
They spent the rest of the night exchanging playful banter and arguing about baseball (he’s a Yankees fan and she’s a supporter of the Red Sox). “I’ve learned that Sean’s confidence can be a little extra sometimes,” said Ms. Hooper. “Sean learned that he would never win a game of ping pong against me for the rest of his life.”
As they went to their car, Mr. Balaban asked Mrs. Hooper for her phone. “I said ‘No’ and he said, ‘I’m trying to give you my phone number,’” Ms Hooper recalls.
A week later, the two went on their first date to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, and within a month they became “official,” both said.
‘You don’t see anyone else, do you? Neither do I,” Mr. Balaban recalls saying to Mrs. Hooper. “OK, we’re exclusive.”
Mr. Balaban, from Port Washington, NY, graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in sports management. He works for Dun & Bradstreet, a data and analytics company, as director of growth marketing.
From Marathon, Florida, Ms. Hooper holds a bachelor’s degree in event management from the University of Central Florida. She is a program coordinator for talent and leadership development at HubSpot, a company specializing in customer relationship management software.
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When they dated, each’s ability to share personal medical advances with the other helped deepen their bond.
“I felt more comfortable talking about my health issues than ever in previous relationships,” said Ms. Hooper. “I used to try to hide pain or discomfort and pretend I always felt good. I didn’t feel this shame or even shame that I had felt before.”
“Being with someone who gets it, like it actually gets it, is so special,” she added.
On November 28, 2020, Mr. Balaban surprised Ms. Hooper with a proposal at Guana Tolomato Matanzas, a wildlife sanctuary in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. After a beach walk with their four year old Vizsla Boomer, were met by family and friends who were in on his plan.
“My friends gave Boomer a large diamond-ringed toy to give to me,” said Mrs. Hooper. “Then Sean fell to one knee and proposed to him.”
The two, who live in Jacksonville Beach, were married on March 26 at the Lodge & Club on Ponte Vedra Beach in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, the seventh anniversary of their marriage. Rindaanne Riccio, Mr Balaban’s college friend ordained pastor of Universal Life Church for the occasion, performed for 157 guests, who were vaccinated or Covid-tested.
For the ceremony, Boomer served as an honorary dog. “We wanted to witness him, but my bridesmaid, Taylor Helms, is single and said, ‘Please don’t let me walk the dog downstairs,’” Ms Hooper said.
At a reception that followed, the couple shared a giant gluten-free cookie sandwich instead of cake, and Dippin’ Dots, a favorite ice cream snack of the bride and her father, were served on the dance floor. Later, guests were treated to a beach bonfire and taco bar.
“Everything went smoothly,” said Mr. Balaban. “And Boomer lay in the sand the whole time, wagging his tail like a metronome.”