Riley Sabol, 27, and Jeremy Genlot, 36, never wished for a large or lavish wedding. Both private people by nature, they just wanted a day to celebrate their love.
So, when they made plans to exchange vows in their newborn son’s hospital room in the Brigham’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) last month, they expected a no-frills event. They dressed casually for the day, anticipating that they would walk into an ordinary hospital room and maybe take a few selfies.
Instead, as they entered baby Jackson’s room on Aug. 28, they realized his care team had turned it into a makeshift wedding venue. The room was filled with thoughtful touches, including framed illustrations, matching necklaces with images of Jackson’s footprints, a “Just Married” banner and other décor. The windowsill was lined with vases of artificial flowers, a NICU-friendly spin on conventional wedding floral arrangements to protect babies in the unit with underdeveloped or compromised immune systems.
Jackson’s nurses had also dressed him in a tiny tux for the occasion, an Office Services staff member volunteered to serve as wedding photographer and Food Services arrived with a custom wedding cake topped with colorful macarons. Leading up to the big day, Spiritual Care Services and Social Work staff had worked behind the scenes to facilitate and expedite their marriage license application with Boston City Hall.
The couple was equally stunned and touched by all that was done for their family.
“It was perfect,” Sabol said. “I don’t think if we had a wedding out in the ‘normal world’ that it would’ve been nearly as special and important to us as this experience was. Jeremy and I were there for our love, and we also had the result of our love there — our child. We felt very blessed, honestly, that we were alive, and there’s nothing we wanted more than to be together.”
The close bond the couple have formed with Jackson’s care team made the event feel just as intimate and warm as a conventional wedding, Genlot said.
“We didn’t feel like we were surrounded by strangers,” he said. “Everyone who was there in the NICU at that moment felt like family and friends.”
NICU nurse Amanda Ahlquist, BSN, RN, said the experience was just as memorable for the multidisciplinary team of impromptu wedding planners.
“It was a special day in the NICU as we dressed Jackson in his tuxedo and transformed his hospital room into a beautiful space for his parents to get married. He has come such a long way over the past month,” she said. “It was amazing to be a part of their big day and help them all celebrate as a family.”
The harrowing circumstances that brought their family to the Brigham are partly what inspired the couple to tie the knot at the hospital.
As she neared the end of an otherwise uneventful pregnancy, Sabol was diagnosed with preeclampsia at 29 weeks. Preeclampsia is a form of persistent high blood pressure that can occur during pregnancy. It can be life-threatening, and it can only be cured by delivering the baby.
She was initially admitted to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where she originally planned to deliver. Her condition worsened, however, and within three days she was transferred to the Brigham. Here, doctors diagnosed her with HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening complication linked to preeclampsia that causes red blood cells to break down, low platelets and liver damage. Within hours of their arrival, Sabol underwent an emergency cesarean section.
The compassionate care they received left a profound impression on the family. Sabol recalled how one of her Labor and Delivery nurses, Shylee Stewart, BSN, RN, never left her side — staying with her for hours and accompanying Sabol to the obstetrical operating room. Jackson was immediately admitted to the NICU, where he continues to grow bigger and stronger each day under the expert care of his multidisciplinary team.
“From the second we got here, the whole hospital was amazing in making sure we felt safe,” she said. “During a traumatic time, we felt we weren’t alone.”
In the aftermath of all they had experienced, it became clear what they should do next, Sabol said.
“Everything that happened really showed us how fragile and important every moment is,” she said. “We felt like there was no reason to keep waiting to get married, and we wanted to do it where our baby was.”
Both are also service members in the U.S. Army. Sabol is an Army reservist, and Genlot is an Active Guard Reserve soldier. As they anticipate being stationed somewhere else soon, they also wanted to ensure their new family of three would remain together.
NICU social worker Sarah Coppenrath, LICSW, who helped plan the event, said it was an honor to support the family in this way.
“Within the NICU, we hold a privilege of being present during families’ most vulnerable moments,” she said. “A NICU wedding is not the anticipation of perfection that many hold; however, it was their family’s start, and there’s nothing more perfect than that. Thank you, Riley and Jeremy, for allowing us to bear witness to your love.”
The newlyweds say they are “beyond grateful” for all that the Brigham has done for them.
“That’s not their job to plan a wedding, so it was very touching to see people go beyond what their main responsibility is — to provide medical care to our child — and make us part of the family in the NICU,” Sabol said.
Genlot agreed: “We met as strangers, we became friends, and we left as family,” he said.
The event beautifully reflected what patient- and family-centered care looks like in practice, said Patty Lee, MM, MTS, BCC, staff chaplain for the NICU.
“In a simple NICU hospital room — beautifully decorated by Sarah and Amanda, photographed by Reggie from A/V, with a cake hand-decorated by chef Julianne and united by Boston Registrar Paul Chong, who came all the way down from City Hall — I witnessed something magical that brought tears to my eyes: People coming together from all across the city and the hospital to celebrate how love always triumphs,” she said.