Within an hour of getting the news, Danielle Jones, 23, sprang into action. Her 19-year-old sister, Gabby Jones—fighting for her life at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health—was not expected to survive. Already battling myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of blood cancer, as well as a disorder that ravaged her immune system, Gabby contracted an extremely rare and deadly fungal infection that her body was too weak to fight.
Danielle and her boyfriend of three years, David, had been seriously considering marriage. They decided the time was now.
“I just want my sister there, I want her to be my maid of honor,” Danielle told one of Gabby’s doctors. “We consider one another best friends.” Knowing it would mean the world to both sisters, Gabby’s nurses, physicians and medical team at Riley mobilized to make that wish a reality, offering to host the wedding in Gabby’s actual hospital room in downtown Indianapolis. They would do much more than that.
That night, Danielle and David raced to the mall to pick out a ring and a dress. Options were limited, but the bride-to-be landed her eyes on a white-lace prom gown in her size. Although Gabby was too sick to get out of bed, Danielle picked out a cream dress for her to wear; she would later pin it to Gabby’s hospital gown. David proposed to Danielle in her living room—an engagement that would last less than 48 hours.
Meanwhile, Gabby’s medical team quickly made arrangements. “I have an amazing staff that knows what to do,” said Joni Vaughan, the Riley nurse who oversees Gabby’s unit, the stem cell transplant unit. Joni cut short an out-of-town trip and returned to Indianapolis to help coordinate the details. Nurses came in on their day off.
Joni and her fellow nurses provided a white aisle runner in the hallway leading to Gabby’s room. In lieu of real flowers which aren’t permitted due to Gabby’s fragile condition, they provided fake rose petals to toss in the bride’s path. They hung a garland from Gabby’s doorway, near a makeshift altar, and turned the playroom into a reception area, where family could enjoy wedding cupcakes and juice served in toasting glasses. Nurses brought in veils and curling irons. A friend was able to curl Gabby’s hair.
Most importantly, the team worked carefully to adjust the tubing of Gabby’s breathing machine, enabling her bed to be safely wheeled to the doorway, where she could be part of the ceremony.
“We were just expecting the ceremony to be in her room at her bedside,” said Danielle. “Joni said absolutely not. I want you to walk down the aisle with your dad.” And she did. With her sister looking on from the end of the aisle, lined with family and staff, Danielle and her dad emerged through the unit’s double doors.
And for the first time in a long time, Gabby showed emotion. She began to cry, and gave Danielle a thumbs-up, the special signal they used to say: “Everything is OK.”
“Even when she found out she was going to die, she never cried. But when Gabby saw me and my dad, she started to cry. Then of course everyone started crying,” said Danielle. “She said they were happy tears. She said, ‘I’m really glad you did this for me’.”
It was a day that Danielle and her family will never forget. “I couldn’t believe what they did for us. They’re like our family. We’ve been in and out of the hospital since September and for them to step up like that, I was amazed,” said Lynette Jones, the girls’ mother.
“I have said many times that at Riley we cannot always extend the length of a child’s life but we can significantly add to the quality of life through compassion and providing the best care possible for everyone,” said Joni.
Gabby has been transferred to a hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., closer to the family’s Churubusco home. Still holding out hope for a “miracle,” Danielle and her family are cherishing the time they have left with their sister and daughter. Danielle will always have Gabby’s signature on her marriage certificate.
“Everyone said, ‘Who would want to get married in a hospital,’ and I said, ‘Who wouldn’t want to have their sister there?’ She was there, it was perfect and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”