The call came late Thursday afternoon, June 1, less than 24 hours after my wife and I had returned from a trip to Europe: Could I photograph a wedding the next evening? Stacey Wendt-Kaisler, my contact at St Mary’s Hospital for the story of Mary Jean McGrath’s heart surgery, apologized for the last-minute request and explained that the hospital staff were organizing a wedding for a patient who was not expected to live more than a few days longer. The ceremony was scheduled for 6:00 P.M. on Friday in the hospital’s garden courtyard.
Last-minute—or jet-lagged—or not, this wasn’t a request to refuse.
A LOVE STORY: HOSPITAL WEDDING
The patient was the bride’s mother, Debbie Nelson, 47. Less than a month before, Debbie and her daughter Melissa Holmes (“Missi”) had been planning Missi’s July 22 wedding to Bryan Rowin. But in late May Debbie instead found herself struggling with a sudden-onset cancer that in only three weeks spread to her lungs, bones, and lymph nodes. She despaired of not living to see Missi’s marriage.
“Being at our wedding meant so much to my mother,” said Melissa. “When we learned that she might not last until July Bryan and I thought: why don’t we just get married now? I asked the hospital if they would let us get married in her room -- just the two of us and our parents. But instead the hospital people arranged a real wedding in the garden, with flowers, a cake and a reception for our guests. And they did it in a day! All I wanted was a room. What they gave us was amazing!”
In a newsletter for the hospital staff Stacey Wendt-Kaisler wrote, “Late last week Dr. Eric Marty, Medical Staff Director of Palliative Care, contacted Ginger Malone, Vice President of Patient Care Services/CNO, to let her know Debbie’s condition was deteriorating rapidly, and that she likely wouldn’t make it to her daughter Missi’s July 22 wedding.
“In what can only be described as an act of compassion, Ginger, Vice President of Hospital Operations Jon Lewis, 5SW Manager Jennifer Knight and Director of Volunteer Services Joanne Johnson rallied a group of hospital staff and volunteers to transform the hospital into a wedding venue for Missi and her fiancé Bryan. With a timeframe of about 30 hours, Environmental Services Manager James Molledahl and his staff set up the Courtyard Garden for the wedding ceremony and Director of Care Management Rita Beckman picked up flowers, while Executive Chef John Marks and his team created an elegant reception in the Conference Center complete with hors d'oeuvres and a beautiful wedding cake.”
Bryan had already purchased wedding rings when he bought Missi’s engagement ring, but with less than 24 hours to prepare, Missi and Bryan were very busy. They obtained a marriage license with a waiver of the statutory waiting period, asked a good friend to stay up all night altering the wedding dress that Missi had found beforehand, and called friends and family to invite them to the ceremony.
Stacey Wendt-Kaisler continued: “The look on Debbie's face as Jon Lewis and Johnelle Heitschmidt, RN, wheeled her into the garden spoke volumes. Tears of joy rolled down her cheeks as Chaplain John Berg officiated the marriage of Missi and Bryan in front of about 25 of their closest family and friends. ‘This was absolutely amazing,’ [Debbie said]. ‘I never expected anything like this. I came here a few days ago feeling very sick but knowing that I had one goal, and that was to see my daughter get married.’ "
In a note to the hospital Missi wrote: "I don't know how to begin to say how thankful I am for all of this. You all honestly made my dreams come true … I got to marry the man of my dreams and have my close family there! Above and beyond thankful!“
There’s a postcript to the story: A few days after the wedding, Missi’s mother was discharged and returned home. Her color and some of her energy had returned, and for several weeks she received radiation and chemo-therapy and her condition seemed to improve. Debbie was still very sick, but her family attributes the seemingly miraculous turn to her presence at Missi’s wedding in the hospital’s garden.
“I think it saved her life,” says Missi. “It gave us more time with her -- from days to months -- we can only be thankful for.” She pauses before continuing, “That place [St. Mary’s Hospital} -- they’ll never understand how thankful we are. Our overwhelming feeling is gratitude.”
Debbie and her family were together constantly during the weeks that followed, either at home or in hospice. She suffered a heart attack, from which she recovered, but the cancer continued to spread.
And on July 22, Melissa Holmes, 27, and Bryan Rowin, 28, friends and sweethearts since they were eleven years old, were surrounded by more than 200 friends and family members at their second wedding -- even though they were really married on June 2. Chaplain John Berg married them again. Debbie was too ill to attend in person, but she was certainly present in spirit, her tears of joy at the hospital wedding seven weeks earlier remembered by all who had been there.
At peace at last, Debbie Nelson died the next day, July 23.