In just moments, Hollings Cancer Center inpatient nurses transformed the area. They used the pink, plastic ice buckets for patients to chill the sparkling cider. A hospital cart became a catering table. A sheet, a tablecloth. And, somehow a white, scalloped two-tiered cake miraculously appeared next to festive, gold napkins.
It would become a day Justice Dunlap, 18, would later describe as perfect.
It was thought the teenagers would have their commitment ceremony near the exercise bikes in the waiting area on the seventh floor of the Ashley River Tower (ART) at the Medical University of South Carolina. However, Carrie Moore, unit nurse manager of the HOPE unit or the Hematologic Oncologic Protective Environment, would have none of that. She and other nurses set up the space to showcase the view of the Ashley River, arranging an aisle and seating for 25 guests.
Moore found out she had a special skill. Deejaying. She cued up the song that patient Eric Mason wanted for Justice as she walked down the aisle: John Mayer’s, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” It’s not the typical song to walk the aisle, but then these were unusual circumstances.
Eric, 19, knew time was of the essence. The moment was everything. During the past year, he had spent a lot of time with the staff on ART – 7W to be treated for aggressive lymphoma. When he relapsed after a stem cell transplant, his treatment transitioned to comfort care.
Moore says everyone grew to love him. “He was kind and generous and had a wonderful strength during even the toughest times of his treatment.”
When the staff learned the one remaining item on his bucket list was to show Justice how much he loved her, the team sprang into action. They called Hannah Coyne, the palliative care chaplain who had spent time with Eric. She already knew of his eloquence, his generous spirit and his care and concern for his family and friends.
She came to see what she could do, discovering it was really important to Eric to be able to share his love and commitment to Justice in a spiritual ritual “in God’s eyes” before he died. Could Coyne help him? Of course, she could. They got to planning.
It was Thursday evening, March 14. The wedding would be the next day - a balmy, spring afternoon affair. All the staff bonded together to do their parts to pull it off. Honored to officiate the ceremony, Coyne says it was a really joyful occasion in the midst of a lot of sadness.
“It was clear to everyone present that Eric was coming to the end of his earthly life. But in the midst of the dying process, there still is living to be done. There are still goals that can be accomplished. There are still legacies to be created.”
- Hannah Coyne
“This spiritual ritual, looking out over the Charleston Harbor, was a reminder to everyone present that life is for living — to the end and to the fullest.”
Coyne took it all in. Eric decked out in all black with the pop of white of his bowtie. Best yet, the staff had worked to get the right mix of pain medications, so he was able to walk and be freed of all his IV lines. She got a glimpse of the young man before he got sick.
“I believe it’s really important for our patients’ dignity. It’s also a good reminder for us as caregivers that each of our patients has a life and a story before ever stepping into our doors, and part of our job is to honor that.
And honor it they did. Ask any guest what their favorite moment was, and the answers pour out.
For Coyne it was the ‘holy moment’ of watching the extra long hugs that Eric and Justice shared with their parents after the ceremony. It was saying a prayer of blessing over Eric and Justice at the end of the ceremony to commend them to God’s continued care, in life and in death.
For Moore, it was getting to see the couple cut the cake and smash white icing into each other’s faces, a cake purchased by one of the first nurses to be involved with his care, Kate Hall.
“It was smiles. It was strength. It was ...’ Moore pauses, searching for just the right word. “Love.”
The ceremony opened a moment to see Eric in a new light as if he weren’t sick. “He was Eric during that time. Moments like this not only make you a better health care provider, they make you a better human being.”
Moore says it was amazing to see how all the nurses, doctors and staff could all pull together in such a special event in a short time.
“To me this is exactly what oncology nursing is all about. It’s the heartfelt dedication.”
- Carrie Moore
Justice says she’s so thankful to the staff, some of whom even came in on their day off, to make the ceremony perfect. The outpouring was, in part, a testament to Eric’s caring nature. He touched people in so many ways, and at the end, they were there for him. Everything just fell into place. Her mother had the perfect, lace dress she could borrow. His aunt crafted a homemade bow. The cake was beautiful. “It was more than I ever thought it could be. They made the day magical.”
The best moment for her: the kiss and seeing Eric so ecstatically happy.
Justice had popped the question just days before. “I asked him if he wanted to do this before it was too late. We had known we wanted to be together in the eyes of God for a long time.”
Justice says she will always treasure the memory of how happy he was that day. It comforts her as she now grieves his loss. He passed March 18, the Monday after their ceremony.
The memories keep playing in her head. There was the first time she met him through mutual friends on Facebook. When he told her she had the nicest smile. They talked every day after that until meeting in person in January of 2017 at Surfside Beach. The day was so blustery and cold, they had to bundle up to withstand it. Conversation flowed easily, and they laughed in awe as a dolphin surfaced close to them. It was as if they had always known one another. They were inseparable after that.
When she got the call a year later that he was sick, it never occurred to her to break up. They liked the same type of music and, more importantly, had the same sense of humor. “We were perfect together. He was my other half.”
Justice says she’s forever changed by the experience. She’s now considering becoming a pharmacist to help others, but for now, she’s taking time off to grieve and honor their memories.
Grateful to all the staff who became part of their extended family, Justice can tell she’s a stronger person now. She’ll always hold in her heart Eric’s memories and values. She says he was the most caring and selfless person she’s ever met, even when he was in the most pain of his life. He wanted everyone else to be happy.
Justice sees life in a whole different way. “Every single moment is important, even if it’s a bad moment.”