After their daughter, Drue, was born prematurely on April 21, Grier Stanley Barnwell and Jason Barnwell spent more than 100 days with her in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a Connecticut hospital.
The couple had to cancel their wedding twice, in part because of Drue's early arrival. But on August 3, they finally said "I do" in a most fitting venue — the NICU — surrounded by the caregivers who had tended to their daughter.
“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,” Jason Barnwell, 36, of New London Connecticut, told TODAY. “We laughed it off like, ‘Are you serious?’ But she took it to another level.”
For the ceremony, Barnwell wore a suit and Stanley Barnwell wore a white lace duster over a white pantsuit holding Drue in a Moby wrap. Having their daughter in the wedding made it all the more special for the first-time parents.
“Drue gave us a smile at the end,” Stanley Barnwell, 37, told TODAY Parents. “She was smiling probably because it was her plan.”The ceremony also brought joy to the NICU staff and other parents of NICU babies.
“I’ve been a neonatologist for 30 years. This is my first wedding in a NICU,” Dr. James Pellegrini, director of the NICU at Yale New Haven Health Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, told TODAY Parents. “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.”
When Stanley Barnwell had stomach pains on April 21, she didn’t think she was in labor because she was only 28 weeks pregnant. Still, her midwife encouraged her to get checked out and Stanley Barnwell soon learned that she was 6 centimeters dilated. Baby Drue arrived about two hours later. While the couple worried about Drue, who was only about 2 pounds at birth, her premature birth also meant they needed to cancel their wedding 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,’” Stanley Barnwell 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.”
After Drue’s birth, she needed to be intubated and received a blood transfusion.
“The first 12 hours were really really rough,” Stanley Barnwell said. “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.”
Within 24 hours, Drue was extubated, but she still needed support to grow. She struggled breathing at times and she faced some “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,” Stanley Barnwell said.
The couple tried rescheduling the wedding, but Father Tony became ill and they postponed again. They knew they wanted to get married but were unsure when and where until a staff member suggested a NICU wedding. At the ceremony, Stanley Barnwell wore a crown that her aunt Marty wore at her wedding several decades earlier. The couple kept a video journal to share with loved ones.
“Our family didn’t even know we were getting married,” Stanley Barnwell said. “This was an amazing surprise for everybody.”
Drue no longer needs NICU support and went home on August 5, Stanley Barnwell’s birthday. After their experience in the NICU and caring for a preemie, the couple learned more about themselves and their relationship.
“We love each other even more,” Barnwell 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.’”