February is a month most Americans equate with romantic, Hallmark-esque dinner dates with your wife or sweetheart, with the cares of the day and the world locked outside. A year ago, on Valentine’s Day, I witnessed the sweetest, most emotional and most real wedding I may ever witness.
The wedding day is finally here, Sunday 14 February 2016, and here comes the bride. Decked in a beautiful, white lacey gown, she strides down the carpeted floor of a fluorescently lit, dull grey conference room, arm in arm with her father, to meet her dashing groom at the other end of the room.
The congregants — about 200 strong — comprising friends, family and some of the nursing staff of Siskin Hospital for Rehabilitation, in which this sacred service is being held, eagerly watch, with tears in their eyes, as the stunning, red-haired bride, Samantha, makes her way down the white carpet toward her dashing groom.
The father-of-the-groom minister stands in the centre, with groomsmen and bridesmaids at his side, but the groom, Peter, remains seated in a wheelchair. His natural beaming grin is absent from his face, as his nerves and physique are under the debilitating power of Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
Those gathered know the battle Peter and Samantha have faced in the last month, and their marriage is about to become a testimony to God’s healing power and steadfast love and faithfulness to them. We will learn what true love and marriage is all about.
‘I thought I had a stroke’
Peter, an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at Covenant College, on Lookout Mountain in Georgia, was in North Carolina with the team at the end of January 2016 when he suddenly began to feel ill.
What began as a tingling feeling in his extremities soon eclipsed into numbness and exhaustion. Upon returning home to Chattanooga, Tennessee, he fell in his home one night and his face went numb.
Thinking he had a stroke, he checked himself into the local emergency room and was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) soon afterwards, as things got worse. Initially, the doctors thought it might be a severe case of mono (glandular fever), but one wise doctor accurately diagnosed it as Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).
According to the Mayo Clinic, GBS ‘is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves’. The autoimmune disease attacks the myelin sheath around the nerves, which causes paralysis — as it was doing with Peter Wilkerson.
Peter was hooked up to oxygen, as he could not breathe or swallow without help and had no control over any of his body. After being admitted to the ICU, Peter’s parents and fiancée came to his side from Columbia, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively.
For five days, Peter was in ICU receiving intense treatments to stop the nerve attacks so that he could begin to recover. Friends and family prayed for Peter from all corners of the globe as news broke out of his sudden illness.
Siskin Rehab Hospital
After receiving treatment, Peter was admitted to the stroke ward at Siskin Rehab Hospital in Chattanooga. Peter was undoubtedly the youngest in that ward and the doctors said recovery might take a year, with 6-8 weeks in the hospital, that is, if he could begin to recover.
While nurses and therapists tended to Peter’s medical needs, Peter’s parents continued to stay in Chattanooga and care for their son’s physical needs. Jim, Peter’s father, compared caring for Peter’s condition as one might care for a helpless newborn infant, except that he’s got the body of a 24-year-old. Once able to down platefuls of food, Peter could only eat pureed food, which Jim made for him daily in a food processor.
We really take for granted how much our body does just on its own. Movements such as swallowing, closing your eyelids, speaking, and even smiling were nigh impossible for Peter for nearly two months.
Nerves grow back less than a millimetre a day; recovery was going to be slow. For seven weeks, Peter couldn’t even get out of bed by himself, let alone walk. Peter described it this way: ‘The mental side of it is astronomical. You go from being able to do anything you want to not being able to lift your arm’ (‘Rare disorder strikes two Chattanoogans’, 4 April 2016, The Times Free Press). Peter was fighting an uphill battle, alongside his parents and fiancée, Samantha.
‘You could get married here’
Not only did this catastrophic disorder hamper his health and livelihood as a basketball coach, but it changed his life in regard to his fiancée Samantha.
Samantha and Peter were planning on being married in their hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, on 30 April 2016. Now Peter was looking at a recovery period of a year or more and he couldn’t leave Chattanooga.
Some brides might run at that kind of uphill battle, but Samantha’s godly love for Peter kept her by his side through it all. Peter’s father jokingly suggested to the couple that they could get married in the hospital. So that is exactly what happened!
Samantha had already purchased her dress and asked her bridesmaids if they had done the same. Surprisingly they were all prepared and the date for the wedding was set for Valentine’s Day.
Since the wedding was at such short notice, the majority of those who could make it to the wedding were family and friends from Chattanooga and Atlanta. Samantha and her family and soon to be in-laws decorated the conference room, which was down the hallway from Peter’s room.
Since Peter’s father was a minister, he agreed to officiate at the wedding. Friends from Peter’s church agreed to play music for the wedding and soon everything was ready that Sunday for the wedding.
As congregants filled the grey-hued room, everything was abuzz with excitement and joy. Peter was decked in his best grey suit and was wheeled down the centre aisle with his father and best man in tow.
After bridesmaids and groomsmen were arrayed at the front of the room, Samantha came down in her beautiful wedding gown to sit beside Peter. As Eric Youngblood, Peter and Samantha’s pastor in Chattanooga, writes in his article ‘The wheelchair wedding’, ‘She would not stand, because he could not stand’.
When Jim gave his charge to the couple, he began by saying, ‘Normally I’d offer a charge to a couple as they enter into this relationship, but today I want to commend them’. Jim commended them for their love for one another, especially in the current trial, and their fervent love and trust in the Lord through those trials.
He ended the homily by saying, ‘If this marriage is starting like this, we just know it’s gonna be good’. When the words were given, ‘I now present to you Mr and Mrs Peter Wilkerson’, they kissed and Samantha rolled Peter back up the aisle in his wheelchair.
Although a smile was absent from his face due to the effects of GBS, you knew that Peter was just as joyful as his bride. Peter and Samantha spent their wedding night there in the hospital and were together for several weeks in hospital as Peter continued to recover.
It is amazing to see what marriage can do to a body. In Peter’s case it gave him incredible strength and drive to recover. God really worked a miracle in Peter’s life as he re-learned to walk and move and recover his former life as a basketball coach.
A month after their wedding day, Peter surprised Samantha by dancing with her in the hospital. Many weeks after the wedding, Peter finally came home and was able to walk, slowly but steadily.
Easter came and Peter and Samantha visited the Wilkersons in Columbia. At that point, Peter was driving again and was able to ride a bike all by himself! Peter returned to Covenant after many long weeks in hospital and worked part-time for a few months. He is now back full-time and has very few symptoms of GBS or of any nerve damage. He is back to his former weight, having lost 30 pounds from the illness.
We can take for granted even the smallest ways our Lord sustains us day by day in our daily movements and habits. But God is our maker and redeemer, and he was glorified through Peter and Samantha’s trial and recovery. What an amazing God we serve!
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA. He is the brother of Peter Wilkerson.