In the final days of September, which was Blood Cancer Awareness Month, not one, but two leukemia patients decided to tie the knot with their fiancés at UVA Medical Center. Although under very different circumstances, the timing of the two weddings is remarkable.
“This was a very exciting week for us on the 8th floor,” says Liz Daniels, manager of the hospital’s cancer inpatient unit. “It is not often that our nurses, chaplains and other staff members get to celebrate such significant events with their patients.”
From helping to secure marriage licenses to making paper flowers and decorating the hospital rooms, the nursing staff, social workers and chaplain worked overtime to ensure the weddings were as special as they could be in the hospital setting.
Introducing Dr. and Mrs. Francis H. George
“We should have done it sooner,” Francis George, MD, said to his then-fiancé, Jean Drake. After an engagement of one year but a relationship spanning more than a decade, Francis, who is fighting acute myeloid leukemia, decided it was time to get married.
Without hesitation, Jean asked Francis’ nurse, Tim Rose, how to have a wedding in the hospital, and Tim called in the hospital chaplain, Melissa Fretwell, for direction. “I can offer a blessing or you can bring in a minister,” Fretwell told them.
Jean contacted her best friend, whose husband, Charles Jolley, was pastor of her church in their hometown of Luray, Virginia. The Jolleys made arrangements to come to Charlottesville right away.
Then, a UVA social worker advised Jean on how to obtain a wedding license.
Meanwhile, Catherine George, Francis’ daughter, left to get decorations and ran into a slew of extended family members near the elevators, including Francis’ brothers, nephews and nieces, who were surprising Francis with a visit that afternoon.
“For them to arrive when they did is divine,” Jean says.
To ensure the rest of their family and close friends could witness the ceremony, Francis’ son, Stephen George, a computer scientist, worked furiously to set up a videoconference and send an evite to their many friends and family members across the country.
Interestingly, Jean had gone home the weekend before to get clothes, as she knew she would be in the hospital with Francis for a while. For reasons she does not know, Jean decided to bring the wedding band Francis had bought for her months earlier. “This, too, was divine,” Jean says.
An hour and a half later, the wedding ceremony began. Nurses and staff filled the doorway to watch. Tim Rose, Francis’ nurse, stood behind Jean and Francis to quiet any beeps from the monitors while Charles Jolley conducted the nuptials.
Throughout the ceremony, comments were flying in from more than 15 family members and friends who were remotely attending through a Google Hangout videoconference.
At the end of the wedding, Francis made a speech, thanking everyone for making the wedding possible.
“We wanted a grander wedding, but looking back, this was such a genuine ceremony. So full of love,” says Jean. “The whole thing was just miraculous. We always knew it was meant to be.”
With the wedding aside, the George family spoke about the incredible care Francis has received through UVA’s Stem Cell Transplant Program during his extended stay.
“From soup to nuts, this place is the best,” says Francis, who, as a radiologist specializing in nuclear medicine, spent his career working in many hospitals.
“All services, including housekeeping, dining, transport, nursing, phlebotomy, social work, chaplaincy and the care provided by Dr. Volodin, that Francis has received is far above anything we’ve ever experienced. They don’t just care for the patient,” Jean says. “They care for the entire family.”
Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Alonzo Thomas
Big Stone Gap residents Alonzo Thomas and his fiancé of nine years made the final call to get married when Alonzo was hospitalized for complications relating to Burkitt lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I wanted to make it official to ensure that my wife, Karla, and daughter, Jay-Da, would be taken care of if something were to happen to me,” Alonzo says.
“We have lived and loved like we were married,” he adds. There hadn’t been a reason to make their nine-year engagement official prior to his hospitalization.
Alonzo spoke to his nurse, who called chaplain Melissa Fretwell, and staff quickly assembled decorations. “By the patient’s request, I offered some words and a special blessing for the couple, honoring them in marriage,” Fretwell says.
With the entrance to Alonzo’s room adorned with wedding decorations and a beautiful wedding cake inside his room, Alonzo and Karla became husband and wife.
Prior to his cancer diagnosis, Alonzo had been a full-time student studying business administration in the small but famous town of Big Stone Gap, located in southwest Virginia. He moved his family there from Norfolk when his wife’s mother got sick. It didn’t take long after getting settled in Big Stone Gap for Alonzo to realize the growth opportunity for the town.
“Coal miners jobs have been taken away. There is nothing for kids to do,” says Alonzo. “My goal is to revive the spirit of Big Stone Gap by starting businesses and in turn creating jobs, a recreational center for children, and before and after school programs for kids. It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about the children and the town.”
Alonzo, 37, has a family history of cancer. He lost his mother to pancreatic cancer and his father to liver cancer. He is grateful to his mother for leaving him with the gift of religion. “Thanks to my mother, I am a man of faith and of service.”
“When I was diagnosed, everything started spinning around,” says Alonzo. “I don’t know what’s next or how long I will be here.”
Alonzo hopes to be out of the hospital and on to a rehabilitation facility closer to home within a couple of weeks. With Jay-Da in school, Karla is in Big Stone Gap for the week and they can only visit on weekends. “It’s hard to be in here,” Alonzo says. “But I will stay fighting. That’s all I can do.”