A hospital wedding and hope in an uncertain future

Judge Maria McLaughlin presides over the marriage of Shawna Hannon and Pedro Ortiz. "If there was ever a couple who showed their commitment to each other, it's the couple in front of me," she said at one point.
Judge Maria McLaughlin presides over the marriage of Shawna Hannon and Pedro Ortiz. "If there was ever a couple who showed their commitment to each other, it's the couple in front of me," she said at one point. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 29, 2014

They're a couple long on love but, they fear, short on time.

Pedro Ortiz is seriously ill with congestive heart failure, and is scheduled for surgery on Monday. His sweetheart, Shawna Hannon, has rarely left his bedside during more than a month of hospitalization.

Ortiz, 44, worried that he might die before they could wed.

So when nurses in the cardiac-care unit at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia overheard the two saying they wished they could marry, the staff flew into action.

The maintenance department repainted a conference room and visitor lounge. The food-services staff arranged for hors d'oeuvres and drinks. They bought flowers and decorations in blue and green - Hannon's favorite colors. A hospital staffer took her shopping for a wedding dress.

And on Friday, Hannon walked down the tiled aisle of a hospital corridor, with her beloved pushed in a wheelchair. They met each other at a flowered garden arch topped by a pair of paper wedding bells.

"It's now or never," Ortiz had said before the service.

"I feel like I'm dreaming," said Hannon, 35. "I love him so much."

It was a beautiful, happy, and unusual wedding, held a short distance from Ortiz's hospital bed. About 20 family members and friends pressed around the couple in the small conference room. Watching and applauding were two dozen doctors, nurses, aides, technicians, and even patients gathered at the nurses' station, which was festooned in white lace.

"Welcome family and friends and everyone from the hospital," began Common Pleas Court Judge Maria McLaughlin. "If there was ever a couple who showed their commitment to each other, it's the couple in front of me."

Ortiz, tethered to a heart monitor but able to stand for the ceremony, wore a gleaming white shirt with a black bow tie. Hannon wore a floor-length white dress, with a silvery tiara in her hair and a bouquet of white roses in her hands.

Their vow of "in sickness and in health" took on special urgency.

The reception menu kept with Ortiz's restricted diet - no champagne, but sparking juice for the toast.

"We're all praying he'll be all right," said maid of honor Vikki Torres, 34, Hannon's sister.

Ortiz and Hannon have been together for 13 years and share a home in the Northeast. Marriage for them always seemed a thing of the future. Hannon has a 16-year-old son, James, from a previous relationship, and the boy and Ortiz are close.

The couple met 14 years ago, under circumstances that were anything but romantic. Both happened to be working at adjacent shops in the Northeast: Ortiz managed a video-game store, and Hannon worked at a bakery. When the video store was robbed, Ortiz came to see if the bakery might have captured the incident on its surveillance cameras.

The two began talking, and things went forward from there.

Why does Ortiz love her?

"Her compassion," Ortiz said. "The way she treats others. The way she suffers for others, while going without. Between us, everything's been mutual respect and love."

And she him?

"He's kind," Hannon said. "He has an awesome sense of humor - a fantastic father and a beautiful person inside and out."

Their lives changed on May 8, when Ortiz started having trouble breathing and went to Einstein. Except for a two-week period, he's been hospitalized since that day - roughly five weeks.

Ortiz is a patient in the telemetry unit, awaiting surgery to implant a ventricular assist device (VAD), without which he could not survive. A VAD is a mechanical pump that supports blood flow in people with weakened hearts.

The goal is for that device to serve as his bridge to an eventual heart transplant.

"They're such good people," said VAD coordinator Maggie Flynn, who helped Hannon pick her dress.

Their plans had to overcome a wall of bureaucracy. The city declined to issue a marriage license unless Ortiz could be present to apply. Einstein officials intervened, helping to explain the seriousness of his medical condition and get the couple a license.

"We're all working together to make this as wonderful for Shawna and Pedro as we can," said Marianne Wittman, the nurse manager of the telemetry department. "It was important because it's important to Pedro and Shawna. Pedro's sick. He has a sick heart. This was the right thing to do."

Ortiz and Hannon said they were grateful and overwhelmed by the care, support, and comfort provided by the Einstein staff - "we trust them," she said - and by the good wishes and prayers of others.

They hope those positive thoughts carry Ortiz safely through heart surgery Monday.

"I'm scared, I'm petrified," Hannon said. "But I'm excited for him because he deserves this. He deserves the extra chance at life."

Ortiz said he hopes the surgery helps him feel better.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "A little scared. I have a very, very positive outlook, especially with her by my side."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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