Despite illness, wedding goes on … at Arundel hospital

The decorated lobby at Anne Arundel Medical Center's critical care unit was a stark contrast to the panoramic views of the Chesapeake Bay that were supposed to complement Maj. Jonathan Richter's wedding ceremony Saturday.

And the 40 guests who packed into the tight space were fewer than a third of the original number who were to descend on the Annapolis Yacht Club to watch the veteran Air Force pilot and his bride swap vows.

But shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday, flanked by their attendants and a portable heart monitor, Richter and his bride, Sheba Phillips, were pronounced husband and wife, just as they had been planning since April.

The 48 hours before Phillips, 50, and Richter, 48, were due to be married tested the couple's vows to make it through "good times and bad" and "sickness and health" in a way they had never anticipated.

Fresh from his travels to New Mexico, where the Maryland native and 22-year-veteran of the Air Force lives, Richter found himself at AAMC with his mother, who had suffered a stroke late Wednesday night.

Hours later, as he awaited word of his mother's condition, Richter and Phillips were back in the hospital, this time for him. Richter was rushed into surgery early Thursday morning for a coronary angioplasty after it was discovered that he was just shy of suffering a heart attack because of a blocked artery.

There were many unknowns as the couple awaited word on the next steps, but they knew at least one of them would be canceling their plans to wed at the Yacht Club.

But as fast as Richter was able to cancel plans Thursday, the nurses of the critical care unit were making them. And soon, another wedding "had taken a life of its own," he said.

"It came natural — we just said, 'bring it here,'" said Michelle Donovan, clinical director of critical care services, who said that a nurse threw out the idea as word of the canceled wedding spread among the staff. "Whether it's a hamburger or a wedding, we try to meet the patient's needs."

Donovan said it was the first wedding to be hosted by the unit, though it has held a funeral and a baptism. The unit provides those kinds of services as part of its patient-family focus, she said.

"I'm glad they put the thought in our minds and were able to throw it together," Phillips said. "The main thing is getting married, and if this is what it takes, it's what it takes."

It took two tables adorned with colorful wedding cakes, a punch bowl, bottles of champagne, an aisle runner, decorative bows and a stereo to bring the space to life.

Phillips emerged from behind double doors to the accompaniment of "Bittersweet Symphony" wearing an elegantly simple strapless, A-line gown, and was given away by her brother. Phillips' daughter, April, was her maid of honor.

The wedding's officiant, the Rev. Nancy Lincoln Reynolds of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, led the congregation in several prayers, taking every opportunity to emphasize the importance of love above all else.

Several nurses were among the guests — who included Richter's mother — and they all shed tears watching the couple marry.

After the ceremony and many champagne toasts, many in attendance said the wedding was symbolic.

"It's just been so surreal," said April Phillips. "But nobody deserves this more than my mom, and they were able to make the best of this situation."

Longtime friends of the couple said they weren't surprised that the two — described by many as fiercely loyal — kept their word to say "I do." The alternative wedding, they said, marked the perfect start to their marriage.

"It blew us away," said Tiffany Sherman, a friend of the couple for 25 years. "They say for better or worse … and they're getting the worse over now."

A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for the Rev. Nancy Lincoln Reynolds' church. It is the Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church.

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