About 30 people gathered in the small chapel inside the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital on Friday.
Nurses and staff lined the walls, watching their patient Bubba Kuenning, 52, sit at the altar with his son Jeremiah and nephew Jack Elstun by his side.
Kuenning had been in and out of Madonna for the past few years and wanted the hospital staff and his doctor, Eyad Kakish, there for this moment.
The music started to play. Jeremiah mouthed the words as Carol Matson, Kuenning’s bride, walked down the aisle.
Wearing a navy blue dress, Matson sat down next to Kuenning, already seated in his wheelchair.
The Council Bluffs couple are the first to get married in Madonna’s chapel, an event that brought together their friends, family and hospital staff.
They’ve talked about marriage for years, but medical issues kept getting in the way. Before Matson met Kuenning, his left leg was amputated. In September, parts of his right foot had to be amputated as well.
Heart and kidney issues have kept him in the hospital for most of their relationship.
Matson was hospitalized for lung issues a few weeks ago, postponing the wedding by a week. She had spent so much time taking care of everyone around her, she never stopped to take care of herself, she said.
Let’s just do it, they said. It’s time.
“When you get married when you’re older, you think about mortality and all those things,” Matson said. But Kuenning’s disability doesn’t determine what his worth is, she said.
“Those things don’t even exist when you’re thinking about spending your life with someone,” Matson said. “You make your vows and say, ‘Till death do us part.’ That takes on a whole new meaning. Nobody really thinks about it until you’re in that predicament.”
Kuenning and Matson met online in October 2012. They talked on the phone nearly nonstop for two days, comparing interests, what they enjoyed doing in their spare time, places they would like to visit.
“Dating when you’re older, you talk about different things. You look for similarities. And there were lots of similarities,” Matson said.
Kuenning proposed a few years ago — it’s been so long, Matson can’t remember if it was December 2013 or 2014.
That day, she had told Kuenning’s sons — Thane, 17, and Jeremiah, 15 — that she was going to ask him to marry her.
Kuenning had been outside. He came inside for lunch, got down on one knee.
“I beat you to it,” he told her. “I knew you were up to something.”
The two always have had a connection like that, somehow knowing what the other was thinking. It isn’t rare for them to finish each other’s sentences or bizarrely say the same thing at the same time, Matson said.
Sometimes, Matson will wake suddenly from a nap, with a sick feeling that something is wrong. She’ll call the hospital, and sure enough, she said, something serious will be happening with Kuenning.
Matson has visited Kuenning at Madonna frequently, said Amanda Wagner, Kuenning’s nurse since November.
“Everybody in the facility has really grown to love and connect with his family, and they wanted to share this day with us,” Wagner said.
Friday was Wagner’s day off, but she said she wouldn’t miss the wedding for the world.
As the Rev. Joan Frenzel pronounced Kuenning and Matson husband and wife, Jeremiah Kuenning had tears streaming down his face.
He had held it together for most of the ceremony, occasionally pressing his hands on his cheeks.
“It’s bittersweet,” Matson said. “What’s in store, nobody knows.”
Kuenning should be stable enough to return home to Council Bluffs next week. He’ll continue dialysis and in-home occupational and physical therapy.
“He went into the hospital my boyfriend, now he’s coming out my husband,” Matson said. “That’s my wedding gift.”