Love story written in the stars: Team Wilmot helps couple marry despite cancer

The starry Night the painter Vincent van Gogh once wrote in a letter, “… hope is in the stars.”

The famous painting provided a thematic setting for Eric Weiner and Jessica Steklof’s first date in January 2018 at the old Starry Nites Café in Rochester, a new romance that begins just under the bright stars of the van’s night sky. Gogh.

Since then, the young couple have faced a darkness that would challenge even the brightest stars and the most experienced matches, but with the help of their team at Wilmot Cancer Institute, they were able to cement their relationship with the wedding.

“I never felt like I couldn’t go. From the start, the team reassured me that they would take me there and I felt like they were each interested in it personally, ”says Weiner.

Weiner has Merkle cell carcinoma, a rare but aggressive type of skin cancer. Diagnosed in 2019, he wasted no time traveling to the Wilmot Cancer Institute to see Deepak Sahasrabudhe, MD, a medical oncologist who treats skin cancer. His team acted quickly, starting with immunotherapy and surgery with Peter Prieto, MD, MPH. He also suffered radiation with Kenneth Usuki, MD

After Weiner recovered from the surgery, the couple got back together and the time passed. Just hours after getting engaged on Valentine’s Day in 2021, they received a phone call. It was her doctor, sharing that Weiner’s cancer had spread. The team recommended a clinical trial, which unfortunately did not go as hoped. Weiner’s cancer had progressed and after more pictures, his team suggested not to wait until August to get married as the couple had originally planned.

So, on Sunday June 6, they decided to hold a small ceremony of about 16 family members and close friends. Weiner and his oncology team worked with Wilmot’s palliative care team, including Rob Horowitz, MD, division chief of palliative care at URMC. Together, they came up with a pain management plan and explored the wedding venues in the hospital in case Weiner wasn’t well enough to leave.

The Friday before the wedding, Weiner was not feeling well and had to be admitted to the hospital, on the seventh floor of the Wilmot Cancer Center (WCC7). But the team remained determined.

“We told them about the wedding and asked them if they thought I would be able to do it and they immediately started working with the goal of controlling my pain enough to one day get me out of the hospital,” says- he. “They made sure I was medicated enough that I was almost pain free but still clear-headed, and I don’t know what must have happened behind the scenes to get me out but they did.”

Eric Weiner and Jessica Steklof

Weiner was granted a ‘day pass’ on Sunday to leave for his wedding, which took place in Penfield, in Steklof’s grandmother’s backyard.

The couple had a perfect day, filled with love for each other. One of Weiner’s nurses, Natalie Santacesaria, BSN, RN, is also a wedding photographer, so she and her husband took photos and videos.

Their day started with a first glance, the most memorable part of the day for the couple. They signed the Ketubah and exchanged their vows under the Chuppah. Afterwards, family members offered toast and celebrated with dinner and cake.

And then Weiner went back to the hospital for the night. Her Wilmot nurses had put up congratulatory signs and banners around the room to make it festive. Knowing that Weiner and his new wife have a sense of humor, they suggested they were waiters and waitresses for his honeymoon, asking what they could bring to the newlyweds.

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The WCC7 team made a poster for Eric and Jessica.

“The nurses on the pitch, they were so amazing,” Weiner said of his WCC7 team.

Weiner is out of the hospital now, for his fourth round of chemotherapy and his third round of radiation therapy. The couple spend time together doing what they love: relaxing outdoors, playing board games, and watching TV shows.

They haven’t forgotten the original wedding date, however. They hope to visit the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit in Buffalo in August, in honor of their first date at the Starry Nights Café, so that they can once again sit under the van Gogh night sky, guarding the love in their hearts and hope in the stars.

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About Bernice D. Brewer

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