Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital (RSMH) coordinated an impromptu wedding for a bride-to-be so that she could hold her dying father's hand one more time.  

Though not the kind of wedding Jerika Lynn James Merritt had dreamed about since her engagement, she says the informal ceremony at the end of the hall to RSMH's Intensive Care Unit (ICU) helped her focus on beginning a new phase in her life instead of dwelling on Jerry James's impending death.

"They made it possible for me to enjoy those precious few hours with him," Merritt says of the ICU nurses, RSMH chaplain and food services workers who worked fast to coordinate decorations, a ceremony, and a cart of cakes and beverages for a small reception.

Merritt had envisioned a lawn ceremony at her parent's home and walking hand in hand with her father down a strip of grass lined with tiki torches.  She set a date of September 22 – the first day of autumn.

On Friday, August 23rd —- 42 days before the big day — Merritt received news from her mother, Molly James, that the swelling in her father's brain from a stroke was inoperable and that he could die in 24 to 48 hours, the bride said paraphrasing her mom.  Merritt asked her mother to talk to hospital officials about having the wedding that afternoon.

"I accepted it.  I knew he was going to die;  I wanted to enjoy every precious moment while he was still breathing," she said.

In less than 90 minutes, the ICU staff arranged for the hospital chaplain and for refreshments and decorations.  Charlene Chandler, an ICU support technician, called other departments in an appeal for decorations, flowers, anything suitable for a wedding.  The Cardiopulmonary department contributed a collection of paper hearts from a Valentine's Day display.  Radiology also found some appropriate decorations.

A staff member escorted the bride to ICU while nurses prepared the patient to be rolled to the end of the hallway.  On cue, Merritt grasped her father's hand and walked with Chandler and a nurse as they wheeled him on his hospital bed down the hall to meet the chaplain and groom.

Hospital chaplain Elizabeth Freund, a United Methodist minister, officiated.  She says it was the first wedding she performed at the hospital since she became chaplain five years ago.

Immediately after reciting her vows, Merritt says she glanced at her father to see that he had briefly opened his eyes.  It was a welcomed sign, she thought, and it brought a smile to her face. 

Merritt has always been Daddy's girl, she says.  She has many fond memories, and among her most treasured are as a young girl tagging along with her dad to fish or crab.  "I was 10 years old when he taught me how to fish," she says.

A single mother of a 3-year-old, Merritt says she met her husband, Ira Garland Merritt III, a scalloper from Eastville, last summer.  They exchanged glances under a large oak tree, a popular gathering spot in Cape Charles.  Several weeks later, he showed up at the restaurant where she waitresses and asked for her phone number.  

On Sunday, August 25th, the newlyweds were returning from a brief honeymoon in South Carolina when Merritt received a call from her mother stating that her dad had taken his last breath. 

"To move the wedding up more than a month so your father could be there, and then lose him two days later has to be extremely emotional and stressful, but I hope we were able to bring some joy and lasting memories at a difficult time," Freund said.

"I was excited for the bride and groom, and the families," said ICU nurse Heather Arndt.  "We were eager to make the event as special as possible.  It all came together very fast, but overall I think it was beautiful."

"I am always proud of our staff and the amazing things they do every day to make life and death better for their patients, usually quietly and without anyone knowing about it," said Susan McAndrews, Administrator at the hospital.  "Our heartfelt sympathy goes to Mr. James's family, and we wish the newlyweds a long and healthy marriage."

Merritt says she and her mother are grateful to Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital and staff for their support of both her dad and of her wedding.  "I'm just pleased that the nurses and staff dropped what they were doing to help make my day so special."

Published: November 6, 2013