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Tears of joy, tears of sorrow — College sweethearts, a COVID unit wedding, and a love story that ended too soon

The inside story of how VUMC's COVID unit staff pulled together to arrange a wedding, and a reminder that not every love story has a happy ending

by March 12, 2021

Stacey Bruff and Sherri Randolph on their wedding day.

It would be nice if every love story had a happy ending. We know that’s not always true.

The first week of October, 2020, Sherri Randolph had planned to marry her college sweetheart, Stacey Bruff.

As things turned out, Sherri and Stacey got married a few days earlier, Sept. 21, in the only wedding ever to take place in the COVID unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Then, tragically and unexpectedly, Stacey died only two days after the wedding.

Sherri was devastated, and she still has a hard time talking about Stacey without tears welling up. There is a lot of sadness about how things turned out. She knows that all over the world there are millions of lives that have been changed forever by the COVID-19 pandemic, and hers is one of them. So, this is a story rooted in the devastation of the pandemic.

But don’t lose sight of this: it is still a love story.

College, then life, then reunion

Sherri and Stacey met and dated while they were both in undergraduate school at the University of Tennessee’s campus in Martin, Tennessee. It was serious; they dated three years, spending a lot of sunny college weekends together at nearby Kentucky Lake.

“We were lake people – we always were skiing there,” Sherri said.

But after college, life moved on. “We went our separate ways,” Sherri said.

Sherri came to graduate school at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, became a nurse practitioner, and for 20 years practiced in Springfield, Tennessee.

This past summer, spending time at the lake, it almost seems like they were college kids again.

Stacey went to graduate school at Mississippi State and LSU, earning a PhD in agriculture, and built a successful career working as an executive for a seed company.

They each married other people, and each were happy for a while. But over time, neither marriage worked out and both were divorced.

Then, in 2017, Sherri was online and was looking up people she had known in college. She came across something she wasn’t even really looking to find: Stacey’s phone number.

She looked at it.

She thought about it.

And she called it.

“It kind of snowballed from then,” she said with obvious understatement.

Sherri and Stacey agreed to meet in Nashville a couple of weeks later for drinks and dinner and catching up.

“It was like we’d never been apart,” she said.

Just as they had done in college, they found they enjoyed each other’s company.

“We just liked being together,” she said.

About a month before the planned wedding, Stacey tested positive for COVID.

And so, again, they were together. This past summer they found they could spend time at the house they bought together on Kentucky Lake, and it almost seemed like they were college kids again.

Sherri got to know, again, in some cases, Stacey’s extended family. He had two children from his first marriage, daughter Adeline and son Colton, both of whom are in their 20s and live in Arkansas. Stacey also had two younger brothers and a collection of nieces and nephews, all of whom Sherri got to know.

“And Stacey’s mother is like a second mother to me,” she said.

So the sweethearts had found each other, were having fun being together, and decided to get married. They had told everybody. The wedding was planned for October in the picturesque small town of Fairhope, Alabama.

Then in September, about a month before the planned wedding, Stacey tested positive for COVID.

Night flight from Union City

It’s not clear how Stacey was infected — he was careful about masking and social distancing.

But he was feeling consistently worse, and when he sought help, he was admitted to the hospital in his northwest Tennessee hometown, Union City. He spent two days there and his condition was deteriorating.

Sherri’s experience as a nurse practitioner and her training at Vanderbilt meant that she understood more than most how dangerous the situation was getting for Stacey.

“His oxygen was dropping and they put him on BiPap,” she said, referring to a machine that helps patients breathe by providing positive airway pressure. “I said, ‘It’s time to go.’” By “go,” Sherri meant to Vanderbilt.

Stacey was brought to VUMC on LifeFlight, arriving early on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 16.

The next day, Thursday, Sherri was able to visit from the waiting room using FaceTime, where she was joined by Stacey’s son Colton.

Stacey’s daughter, Adeline, was the designated family member who donned full personal protective equipment (PPE) and went into his room.

And it was that day that Sherri and Stacey began talking about moving up the day of the wedding and getting married in the COVID unit.

Somebody called a florist to see if a bouquet for the bride could be delivered for a Monday wedding. As soon as the person on the phone heard about circumstance, the answer came quickly: “Sure we can.”

It kind of seemed like a crazy idea, but Sherri recalls that the COVID unit chaplain, the Rev. Sherry Perry, was supportive and encouraging, and offered to perform the ceremony.

With the help of Perry and others, including a mobile notary, the couple was able to get the paperwork they needed, including a marriage license.

They picked the following Monday for the wedding day, but didn’t tell many people. “We didn’t know if it would work out,” Sherri said.

Somebody called a florist to see if a bouquet for the bride could be delivered for a Monday wedding. As soon as the person on the phone heard about circumstance, the answer came quickly: “Sure we can.”

In fact, “Sure we can” could have been the unofficial motto for the wedding.

“It was kind of like, ‘Wow — all the stars are aligned,’” Sherri said.

Wedding day

Sherri was staying in a nearby hotel to be near Stacey, and she remembers driving to the hospital early on the morning of her wedding day, Monday, Sept. 21.

“It was a beautiful morning,” she recalled. “The sun was coming up. I was talking to God and thinking, ‘This is a wonderful day and everything is going to be fine.’”

That day, it was.

Wedding day: Stacey and Sherri, flowers, desserts, altar with battery-powered candles, and best man Neil Stinson, as spectators look on via Zoom.

Nobody would want to get married in a hospital gown, so the groom changed into a brand-new Vanderbilt T-shirt, fresh from the hospital gift shop.

The bride also wore non-traditional attire: PPE from head to toe, with colorful clips attached to the hood.

The flowers arrived from the florist, and were lovely.

The nightstand became an altar, with a sheet over it for a covering and battery-powered lights casting their warm glow.

There were desserts, including Stacey’s favorite, lemon icebox pie. Christy Noblitt, a COVID unit nurse practitioner, had called around and found a bakery that could provide one, and Lizzie Simonds, a critical care paramedic on the COVID unit, stopped on the way in that day to pick it up.

Simonds also served as the official wedding videographer.

“It seemed surreal,” Sherri said. “It was not quite the way we were expecting it to happen, but we were glad it happened.”

COVID unit nurse Neil Stinson was best man. He helped Stacey to stand, and locked arms with him during the ceremony. The Rev. Sherry Perry, of course, officiated.

When the “kiss the bride” part of the ceremony came up, masks and PPE made that a bit of a challenge.

“He kissed my forehead through his mask,” Sherri said.

Stacey’s children and other relatives and friends got to watch everything on Zoom, and when Perry said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” their cheering over the iPad filled the room.

“It seemed surreal,” Sherri said. “It was not quite the way we were expecting it to happen, but we were glad it happened.”

After the wedding Sherri and Stacey were able to sit together and talk for a while.

The day also brought joy to the staff of the COVID unit.

“Those moments were precious and joyful, as weddings often are,” Perry said. “It was a bright moment in a unit that had seen so much tragedy, sadness and death.”

From his perspective in Stacey’s room, Stinson could see the effect the wedding was having on the unit.

“During the ceremony, there were so many people in the hallway, staff and administrators, all so touched and tearful. Just like a wedding,” he said.

“I was so honored to be his best man.”

After the ceremony, Sherri and Stacey had a little time to sit and visit and talk over their big day.

“He seemed really good,” Sherri remembered. “He was tired, but seemed OK.”

Love endures

The next day, Tuesday, Sherri stopped on the way to the hospital and picked up a Chick-fil-A meal for Stacey, and they spent the day texting and talking in between Stacey’s treatments.

Stacey was not feeling as well. His care team feared that he had developed a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lung that can be a complication of COVID. Sherri was following the developments and grew more apprehensive as the day went on.

Before he went down for the test, Sherri and Stacey texted each other one last time. “I love you,” she wrote. “I love you,” he wrote back.

As Stacey’s condition worsened, he was scheduled for a Doppler test at about 11 that night to examine his lungs.

Before he went down for the test, Sherri and Stacey texted each other one last time.

“I love you,” she wrote.

“I love you,” he wrote back.

Early on Wednesday morning, Stacey went into cardiac arrest and died from the pulmonary embolism caused by the COVID infection.

“I was feeling good about his chances,” Sherri said tearfully. “We just didn’t think he was going to die.”

Stacey was 57.

“I do not have to tell you that life is fragile, because you live in that fragility every single day up here. But between our first breath and our last on this earth we have moments of joy. You gave him one of those moments.  Hold on to that.”

Neil Stinson, the intensive care nurse who was his best man, was among those performing CPR to attempt to save his life.

“We worked so hard trying to save him,” Stinson recalled later. One image that stayed in his mind: Stacey was still wearing his wedding T-shirt.

Perry ran to the unit in response to the STAT call, and noticed something else: The “altar” was still set up in Stacey’s room and the battery-powered candles were still lit.

When the team who had cared for Stacey gathered for a debrief from the code, Perry was among those who spoke. “I do not have to tell you that life is fragile, because you live in that fragility every single day up here,” she said. “But between our first breath and our last on this earth we have moments of joy. You gave him one of those moments.  Hold on to that.”

It’s been a few months now since the joyful wedding day, and Sherri sometimes thinks back with gratitude for the fact that, at this point in their lives, she and Stacey had reconnected.

“Grateful,” she said. “Grateful is the thing that comes to mind. Having reconnected with him. I wouldn’t take anything for the memories — of last summer at the lake, Christmases, birthdays, the time with his kids…”

And she has this bit of advice for the rest of us: “Until you actually live through it, it seems like it’s just words — but tell people who you love that you love them.”

Sherri is emphatic about that last point. The story of Sherri and Stacey is, after all, a love story.

***********

To read a profile of Neil Stinson, go here.

To read a profile of Sherry Perry, go here.

To read a profile of Lizzie Simonds, go here.

wedding, COVID-19, coronavirus, Neil Stinson, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Simonds, Sherry Perry, Vanderbilt School of Nursing