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Diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Nathan Graves, 22, knows his days are numbered. He recently made a decision within his control – to marry his long-time girlfriend. The wedding was performed in his hospital room at IU Health University Hospital Medical Intensive Care Unit.
By IU Health Senior Writer T.J. Banes, firstname.lastname@example.org
It happened all of a sudden. The decision was made and within minutes Nathan Graves was exchanging vows with his girlfriend Kendra Bender. It wasn’t a surprise to those who know Graves.
“He just teaches you to live life to the fullest. When you first meet him you think his personality might be grim. It’s anything but that. It’s like he’s always saying, ‘this is where we are, now let’s make the most of it,’” said Kyle McLaughlin, a nurse who cared for Graves for days after he was admitted to IU Health University Hospital.
The youngest child of Larry and Marcia Graves attended Warren Central for part of high school, where he played baseball. He also took culinary arts classes at Warren Central’s Walker Career Center and worked at the Center’s Threshold Restaurant. In his spare time he enjoyed acting – especially improvisation – and once took on a role in the Shakespearean tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet.”
He went on to graduate from New Palestine High School in 2015 and he thought he might become a chef. But he never quite forgot about a girl he met during childhood. Kendra was a year younger than him and she remembers the two meeting at church. They were in middle school at the time.
With a desire to serve his country, Graves joined the Air Force after graduation. He completed basic and technical training in Texas and was stationed in Italy in 2016 working in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.
“We knew we’d miss him, but we also thought it would be good for him to join the service and have a chance to mature,” said his dad. “We’ve always been very close. As a toddler he’d follow me from room to room. He’s just a special young man.”
It was when he was in Italy - May 2018 – when Graves was first diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He started treatments in Italy and by mid-summer he returned to the United States. He remains on active duty. He began care with IU Health hematologist-oncologist Dr. Mohammad Abu Zaid. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant followed. Graves was back home for about nine months and by September 2019 he returned to IU Health for a second bone marrow transplant. All was good until the end of January. A spinal tap showed the cancer had spread to his central nervous system.
“We did what we could but it’s the end of the line,” said Graves. It was a tough realization. At this point, he said any treatment he receives would prolong his life but not cure his cancer.
So, he decided to truly live during the time he has left. He wants to see Disney World and the Grand Canyon but first he wanted to marry that girl he met at church when he was in middle school. About two years ago the two reconnected on Facebook. Graves took Kendra to dinner – her choice – LongHorn Steakhouse. That night they picked up where they’d left off.
“It instantly felt so natural and so comfortable. From that day on we hung out every day. It’s so hard not to fall in love with someone like Nathan. He is one in a million,” said Kendra. “He will always, always make you laugh and he has one of the best hearts I’ve ever known. We were truly meant to be.”
So when they decided to get married at IU Health University Hospital, plans were quickly set into motion. Hospital staff hustled to make the wish a reality. Reis-Nichols Jewelers donated Kendra’s dress, the couple’s rings and flowers.
IU Health Chaplain Staci Striegel-Stikeleather officiated the ceremony and Graves’ hospital room was filled with nurses and family members. Several others peered from the hallway witnessing the nuptials. When they played one of Graves’ favorite songs by Thomas Rhett, “Die a Happy Man,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Except for Graves.
“He was grinning from ear to ear,” said Joy Howard, a nurse on the palliative care team. “What is so special about this family is they are so cohesive. There’s a sense of togetherness and you could see it when he decided he wanted to get married at the hospital.”
It wasn’t just about two people publicly declaring their love for each other; it was also about a young man who many hospital caregivers have gotten to know and love.
“He’s so appreciative of the work everyone does. It’s easy to like him. It’s been hard on all of us,” said Sarah Hale, medical social worker.
For Graves, marrying the love of his life was something he had to do.
“She’s kind, sweet, funny and truly my best friend,” said Graves. “Under the circumstances we are in, getting married in the hospital was the most perfect place,” said Kendra. “I love him so much I would marry him anywhere. He is so strong. He has handled everything with such ease and understanding.”
Less than 24 hours after the ceremony, Graves was sitting up in bed joking as his brother Ryan fed him biscuits and gravy. IU Health neurologist Dr. Riley Snook checked in on Graves, and his sister Kristen Madren helped fill in details. His family members – including his other sister Kayla Baldonado and his parents – have continually been by his side. They say they’ve gained strength from the courage of their brother . . . their son.
Just days before the wedding his parents learned that Graves had made another commitment – a profession of faith.
“He said he was at peace knowing he would never have to wonder if the leukemia would come back,” said his mom. “He said he was joyful and said he’d see us again when we walk the streets with God,” added his father.