The bride wore white. Her attendants wore scrubs.
It wasn’t the first wedding to take place at the hospital, but this was a celebration of love close to 50 years in the making, and nothing, not even cancer could stop it.
It was a wedding some 47 years in the making.
Bob Ceplina met Denise Rheaume in northern Wisconsin way back in 1969. He first saw her while out for a beer one night with his buddy.
“A little thing with hair down below her belt,” he told Upworthy. “A hippie chick.”
A shy guy, Bob got up the courage to go over. He saw a man who looked to be bothering her, so he told him she was his girlfriend.
“As I saw her, I knew it was it,” he said.
Bob and Denise dated off and on but lost touch for close to 40 years — until this past July, when Denise left a note on Bob’s door, inviting him to call her.
She was newly single. And he had never stopped thinking about her.
It didn’t take long for them to fall in love all over again.
But when Denise went in for a routine surgery last October, her doctor discovered she had leukemia.
Denise underwent chemotherapy and received a stem cell transplant. Bob got down on one knee to propose in February, and the couple planned to wed this summer.
But the new stem cells were killing the cancer and her immune system, and her condition quickly worsened.
“On Mother’s Day weekend, we thought she was going to die,” Bob said. But he spent that Saturday holding her hand, talking to her and feeding her ice chips. Before long, he saw the light return to Denise’s eyes.
“They gave her a new drug too, so we’ll debate as to which was most effective,” Bob said with a laugh.
With the future still uncertain, Bob and Denise asked if they could get married at the hospital.
Bob thought it would be a small affair in Denise’s room. But the staff and team at University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center had much bigger plans.
One of Denise’s nurses informed nurse manager Vicki Hubbard about the impending nuptials, and soon the staff was in full wedding planning mode. In just over a week, they pulled together a wedding to remember.
With help from her daughter and the nursing staff, Denise got dolled up for her big day.
The staff decked out her room, now a bridal suite, with decorations, flowers and balloons.
A frequent volunteer in the wing, who just happens to be a cosmetologist, did Denise’s makeup.
But she hardly needed any makeup; she was glowing all day long.
Her dress was perfect for the unseasonably warm Wisconsin day.
And nurses styled a wig from the Carbone Cancer Center’s wig salon.
Before long, it was time to head down to the ceremony!
As the bride and her attendants rolled through the wings, patients, nurses, and staff popped out of rooms to see the happy processional.
Meanwhile, friends and family gathered at the Haberman Terrace, one of the hospital’s outdoor spaces.
Hospital staffed tracked down flowers, supplies, serving tools, and even wedding decorations and tablecloths of their own to lend to the effort. (They had to be secured to the tables just incase a Med Flight helicopter arrived during the ceremony.)
The hospital’s art coordinator is a harpist, and the twinkle of beautiful music floated through the courtyard.
“Patients and staff were watching the wedding from the fourth level and up,” Denise’s daughter, Megan Rheaume-Brand, told Upworthy.
When the bride entered, Bob was overcome with joy.
Seeing his bride for the first time was his favorite part of the day. “She deserves this. She really does,” he said.
The ceremony was a celebration of love incorporating a wide array of faith traditions. Led by Rev. Andy Jones of St. Andrew’s Episcopalian Church, Denise’s sister-in-law read from the Bible, and a nurse delivered a piece by the dalai lama. A friend of the couple even performed “a song of love and healing on an Ojibwe hand drum,” Megan said.
Between, family, friends, and hospital staff, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Soon, Bob and Denise were pronounced husband and wife.
Before the celebration began, Denise took a moment to thank the crowd of friends, family, and hospital staff.
“I want everyone to know that while cancer kills, love heals,” she said.
Soon, the party was in full swing. The happy couple celebrated with carrot cake…
…lots of laughter…
…and a champagne toast or two.
Banners reading “Best Day Ever” flapped in the breeze, and it was. The happy couple was overwhelmed with gratitude for the effort the staff put in to make their day one to remember.
“They did a phenomenal thing. We weren’t expecting that,” Bob said. “That made it so special. We’re still smiling.”
A few weeks later, Denise is getting stronger everyday.
Buoyed by love, top-notch medicine, and lots of support, she’s come a long way since her close call on Mother’s Day weekend.
“She’s doing so well. It truly is a miracle how fast she’s improving,” her daughter Megan said.
Now a newlywed, Bob drives hundreds of miles back and forth to the hospital in Madison from the couple’s home in Rhinelander, but he has no complaints.
“She’s worth it, totally,” he said. “Your first love is always the best, ya know?”
Thanks so much to Susan Lampert Smith of UW-Health and Bob Ceplina and Megan Rheaume-Brand for the interviews.
On a related note, Bob told me he gave away front-row-center tickets to Iron Butterfly to join his friend on that first trip up north. Something tells me he doesn’t regret it.