Around 50 families, family members, and hospital staff at the University of Chicago Medical Center gathered in the chapel in a corner of the seventh floor of the hospital to celebrate the wedding of a 23-year-old patient expected to be discharged on Thanksgiving to go into hospice care.

Known to his friends and family as Javi, Javier Rodriguez has familial dilated cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease that predisposes him to develop heart failure at an early age. He had two heart transplants, one at the age of 14 and one at the age of 18.

Javi Rodriguez arrives with family and his medical team for his wedding to Crystal Cuevas on Nov. 27, 2019. (Chicago Tribune)

He may live for several days or even weeks, said his current doctor, Dr. Bryan Smith. Rodriguez told him the day before the wedding, “he wanted his tombstone to say ‘husband,’” Smith said.

Staff at the hospital began preparing for the wedding between Rodriguez and his girlfriend since high school Crystal Cuevason on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 26.

Cuevas said she met Rodriquez through mutual friends. Both were high school juniors at the time; she went to the Humboldt Park neighborhood of North-Grand High School, and he went to the West Town neighborhood of Campos High School.

He had already had his first heart transplant when he met her and was healthy, she said. He fell sick again about six months later, and since then she has accumulated “hundreds of passes” (hospital).

Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, who performed the second heart transplant, said Rodriguez had formed antibodies against 98% of all donors before the second operation. Eventually, Jeevanandam said, “against all odds,” Rodriguez got the second heart.

Rodriguez, however, developed new antibodies as time went by.

Smith, who is his current doctor, said that the health of Rodriguez is not good enough for a third transplant because of his infections and kidney dysfunction.

Saturday, while she was at work, Rodriguez called Cuevas, telling her they needed to make “a family decision,” she said. She rushed to the hospital after through the last two hours of work, and he explained to her his decision to go to hospice care.

“I always try to keep it together in front of him, but that day I couldn’t,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with a dad, and that’s the one thing I always wanted to give my baby girl and that’s what he wanted.”

Cuevas created a GoFundMe on Tuesday to help pay for “Javi’s end of life celebration.”

As the wedding started on Wednesday, Rodriguez’s parents, wearing T-shirts printed on the front with “Team Javi,” moved the wheelchair Rodriguez sat in down the aisle. Afterward, Cuevas came in, her hands linked with her stepfather.

Rodriguez asked for a strawberry wedding cake, but no bakeries were able to make one on such short notice when handling Thanksgiving orders. So a three-layer strawberry cake was baked by hospital staff. They also decorated the chapel with white balloons and silver ornaments.

When she arrived at the front, she saw Rodriguez dressed up for the first time that day.

“You look so good!” she said.

As the chaplain began to speak, he said to her, “I love you.”

They smiled at each other after exchanging rings and reiterated after the chaplain, “From this day forward, you shall not walk alone.”

Javi Rodriguez and Crystal Cuevas kiss during their wedding before family, friends, and medical staff on Nov. 27, 2019, in the chapel at the University of Chicago Medical Center for Care and Discovery. (Chicago Tribune)

“My heart will be your shelter, and my arms will be your home.”

Cuevas bent to kiss Rodriguez at the conclusion of the vows, and the room exploded into claps and cheers.

“There are moments where it feels like a dream and moments where it feels real, and this is when it feels real,” Cuevas said after the wedding.

Sign up to receive our latest news!

By submitting this form, I agree to the terms.