In the days after Rick Ganem’s heart transplant surgery, he dozed on and off, often groggy from the medications being pumped into him.
All of a sudden, the door to his hospital room popped open. And there stood his daughter Sarah, clad in her strapless white wedding gown.
“I thought I was in heaven,” the Des Moines man said. “I thought there was an angel standing at the door.”
Still recovering, Rick wouldn’t be able to make her wedding. So she brought the ceremony to his hospital room at the Nebraska Medical Center.
Rick, a father of five, has always been close to his kids. He and Sarah chat over the phone every morning before she heads to work. Growing up, they bonded over swimming and gardening. If Sarah has car trouble or just needs to hear a calm voice, she calls her dad.
Rick has battled congestive heart failure for 25 years.
“I remember when I was a little girl always asking Santa for a new heart for my dad. Blowing out birthday candles, I was wishing for a new heart for my dad,” Sarah said.
Sarah, who’s a nurse now, learned how to help care for her dad as a little girl, her mom, Peggy Ganem, said.
Peggy would set alarm clocks each time Rick needed medication. She trained Sarah on how to call 911 in case of an emergency and made sure the little girl knew her address.
“That’s why I’m a nurse today. ... I’ve always taken care of people, because people have always taken care of him,” Sarah said.
Eventually the disease progressed. No matter how warm it was outside, Rick’s hands and feet were cold. After walking about 4 feet, Rick would have to stop and catch his breath. Having a conversation was difficult. Eating was difficult.
“He had got to the point where he was unable to walk very far and minimal amounts of exertion would cause him to be short of breath,” said Dr. John Um, a transplant surgeon who treated Rick.
Last August, Rick was put on the transplant list. In December, his health took a turn and doctors put a pump in his heart to help distribute blood to the rest of his body, Um said. Rick recovered quickly and was put back on the transplant list. The family expected it to take a few years before doctors found him a new heart.
On June 3 at 6:59 p.m., Peggy took a phone call: They’d found one. Sarah and her now-husband, Tyler Rokey, drove her parents to the med center in Omaha.
Things went well with the transplant. Rick will be in the hospital a little longer because of how long he was in heart failure, Um said.
The impromptu wedding ceremony was the first one Um has seen since he’s been in Nebraska. But he’s seen them in other hospitals, though most haven’t been in “such a happy circumstance.”
Rick protested any changes to Sarah’s big wedding plans, wanting things to go on as scheduled. “It was her day,” he said.
The week of the wedding, Sarah couldn’t accept that her dad wouldn’t be walking her down the aisle.
So she and Tyler drove from Des Moines to the Nebraska Medical Center. Their officiant came with them. Peggy cleared everything with the hospital staff.
As Sarah walked down the hallway of the hospital’s cardiovascular intensive care unit, it didn’t feel real. When she walked over to her dad’s bedside, he was overcome with emotion.
“To see him like that was something that was very special,” Sarah said. “That’s when I knew how important it was that we went there and how happy I was that it worked out.”
The couple exchanged their vows in front of her parents, sister and niece. Hospital staff surprised them with bouquets of faux flowers — donated by a neighboring patient — and a small wedding cake. They even had a photographer in the room.
There was some unusual décor, too: a plastic heart necklace that hung nearby. Inside the heart-shaped trinket float smaller hearts. Sarah won it from a toy machine when she was about 4 or 5 and gave it to her dad.
“It’s always been a part of me. Ever since she gave it to me,” Rick said.
Two days after the hospital ceremony, Sarah and Tyler’s big wedding went on as planned back in Des Moines. Before walking down the aisle, Sarah called her dad. He gave Sarah his best wishes for a healthy and happy marriage.
“Just talking to him right before meant a lot,” Sarah said.
Then Sarah’s mom, Peggy, stepped in to walk her down the aisle.
Even though Rick wasn’t at the main event, he still felt like part of the wedding thanks to the hospital ceremony.
“To say it was a surprise wouldn’t even be doing it justice,” Rick said. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve been part of.”