Grier Stanley Barnwell and Jason Barnwell had to cancel their wedding plans twice because their daughter, Drue, arrived earlier than expected. She was born prematurely on April 21 and spent over 100 days in the NICU at a hospital in Connecticut.
They couldn’t bear to be away from their child during the ceremony, so they finally opted for a change in venue. The couple tied the knot in the NICU on August 3 next to their baby and surrounded by the same nurses and doctors that cared for their daughter. It was a special day they’ll never forget.
“The plan for the wedding, it was brought up by a nurse and she’s like, ‘Oh well, you guys should just get married here,’ because she knew what had happened with Drue coming early,” said Jason Barnwell, 36. “We laughed it off like, ‘Are you serious?’ But she took it to another level.”
The groom wore a suit and bowtie while the bride wore a white lace duster over a white lace pantsuit holding Drue in a baby wrap. The staff gathered around the happy couple to commemorate their special day.
“Drue gave us a smile at the end,” Grier, 37, said. “She was smiling probably because it was her plan.”
It was an exciting day for everyone in the NICU, including the staff and other parents of NICU babies. Nothing spreads joy like an impromptu wedding.
“I’ve been a neonatologist for 30 years. This is my first wedding in a NICU,” said Dr. James Pellegrini, director of the NICU at Yale New Haven Health Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. “It’s definitely a celebration, most importantly, of this family… It’s also a great reward for the entire staff, the nurses, the respiratory therapists, the folks that keep the place clean. All of us work very very hard to provide a special environment that our community relies on.”
Grier experienced stomach pains the day she gave birth, but she didn’t think she was going into labor because she was only 28 weeks pregnant. But Jason encouraged her to go to the doctor anyway. She soon discovered that she was 6 centimeters dilated and Drue arrived two hours later.
The baby weighed only two pounds at birth. The couple feared for their daughter’s life on top of having to cancel their wedding plans, which was scheduled for the following week.
“I was all sutured up and in bed I remember getting out the laptop and emailing Father Tony, who’s our rector for our church, and also the photographer, to say, ‘Hey we are not going to be able to meet next week. We’ve had a little change of plans,’” Grier said. “They told us we would be in the NICU for at least eight to 10 weeks, which brought her up to her due date of July 14.”
Once they were born, Drue needed to be intubated and received a blood transfusion.
“The first 12 hours were really really rough,” Grier added. “It’s just a helpless feeling and we are both protectors and doers and fixers and this was really a crazy curveball to not to be really able to do anything.”
Drue was extubated within 24 hours, but she needed to stay in the NICU until she reached a healthy weight. She struggled to breathe at times as she faced several “ups and downs.”
“She had to stay in the NICU to get through those first hurdles of being so premature and then allowing her body to catch up and grow and develop,” Grier explained.
They tried to reschedule the wedding but their rector became ill and they had to postpone the ceremony yet again. That’s when one of the nurses on staff suggested they get married in the NICU. Father Tony arrived at the hospital once he fully recovered.
“Our family didn’t even know we were getting married,” Grier said. “This was an amazing surprise for everybody.”
Baby Drue is now out of the NICU. They went home on August 5, just two days after the happy couple tied the knot. It was the best wedding present they could’ve hoped for.
The experience of caring for a child in the NICU ultimately brought the couple closer together, Grier said. It taught them how to handle uncertain, stressful situations as a team.
“We love each other even more,” Jason said. “It’s like ‘Wow, look how far we have come. Look how far Drue has come.’ All those emotions are catching up (to us). It’s like, ‘Wow look at what we did, look how strong we were as a family, all of us together.’”