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For two epidemiologists, MGH becomes a makeshift wedding venue

The hospital’s chief of emergency preparedness walks the bride down the aisle

At Massachusetts General Hospital, Jen Andonian, project manager for the MGH Center for Disaster Medicine, and Matt Shearer, senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Research Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, got married at the MGH Ether Dome.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, Jen Andonian, project manager for the MGH Center for Disaster Medicine, and Matt Shearer, senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Research Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, got married at the MGH Ether Dome.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Jen Andonian and Matt Shearer had it all planned: her burgundy floral dress, his matching checked tie. They live in Cambridge, but chose Ann Arbor, Mich., where they met as graduate students, for their simple courthouse wedding ceremony in March with immediate family. A reception for 75 guests would follow the next day at her parents’ lakeside restaurant.

Then the fast-moving coronavirus began spreading through the world — and the United States. Andonian and Shearer, both epidemiologists on the frontlines of COVID-19 — she at Massachusetts General Hospital, he at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security — knew they could not ignore the risk of a large celebration.

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So six days before their scheduled March 20 wedding, they decided they would have to cancel. "We talked a lot about it and we felt we should be good stewards of the information. Our families were going to follow our lead,'' she said. Still "it was rough,'' she added.

When she told her coworkers at the MGH Center for Disaster Medicine the next day, a colleague joked: What about just getting married at the hospital? Her co-workers turned the offhand remark into an actual plan, executed in the midst of exhausting 12-hour workdays. During quick breaks from setting up coronavirus testing sites and expanding intensive-care units, team members ordered flowers and vanilla cupcakes and devised a music playlist. Nurse Eileen Searle applied for a one-day state certificate to perform a marriage ceremony.

Ann Prestipino, a Mass. General senior vice president who is incident commander for the pandemic, called hospital president Dr. Peter Slavin to secure permission to hold the wedding ceremony in the Ether Dome, the former surgical amphitheater where the use of anesthesia was first publicly demonstrated in 1846. Slavin requested they keep the guest list under 10 to comply with state limits on public gatherings during this crisis.

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On Friday, Andonian, 30, and Shearer, 36, were married before a small group of disaster medicine colleagues, all wearing surgical masks and sitting six feet apart to prevent the spread of germs, as the sun streamed in from the windows high in the light-blue dome. It was a welcome but brief break amid the relentless arrival of patients ill with a relentless virus; the number of patients sick enough with COVID-19 to be admitted to Mass. General had more than doubled over the course of the week, to 61 on Friday alone.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, Jen Andonian adjusted the tie of her fiance Matt Shearer.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, Jen Andonian adjusted the tie of her fiance Matt Shearer.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

"This may not have been the wedding you wanted but it is clearly the wedding MGH needed,'' began Searle, whose job includes training nurses to properly put on protective gear. "Thank you.''

Andonian and Shearer met seven years ago during a night out for epidemiologists in the University of Michigan graduate program. She was in her first year, he was in his second. They began dating almost immediately, meeting a week later for sushi and a movie. They moved to Baltimore five years ago for work — she in infection control and emergency preparedness at Johns Hopkins Hospital and he as an analyst in infectious disease outbreaks and bioterrorism at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

When Andonian began a new job at Mass. General last July, they moved together to Cambridge, and Shearer began working remotely from their Fresh Pond apartment. Soon, they began looking forward to their Michigan wedding. After the ceremony, they planned to eat at a favorite spot nearby, Wolverine State Brewing Co. The next day everyone would meet at her parents’ business, Jerry’s Pub & Restaurant, 35 miles away, on the south shore of Wamplers Lake.

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That was not to be. The vendors they had lined up for music, flowers, and dessert agreed to put the couples’ orders on hold until they could reschedule a celebration. When they told their families about the plan to marry at the hospital, Andonian said they had mixed feelings. "Everyone was sad but after seven years, they were ready for us to get married,'' she said.

The couple’s families could not attend due to travel recommendations put in place during the pandemic. Andonian’s mother had her wedding dress made into a silky bathrobe, which her daughter wore on the morning of her wedding day. The couple arrived about 15 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., walking past a long table outside the Ether Dome set with cupcakes to share, a cake for them to take home, tiny colorful containers of bubbles, and a gift bag hiding a bottle of champagne. Nurse Jacquelyn Nally pinned a pink carnation to the lapel of Shearer’s navy suit, while Andonian changed into a pair of sparkly high heels that were a gift from her aunt. She wore the dress she planned to wear at the Ann Arbor ceremony.

"We found that dress two years ago and it was all built on that,'' Shearer said.

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As Andonian waited in the hallway, Shearer stood between a white plaster statue of Apollo and a glass case containing an Egyptian mummy, part of a small collection of artifacts.

"You ready?'' Searle asked.

"Let’s do it,'' he said.

Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of emergency preparedness at Mass. General, walked Andonian in on his arm. The couple, who had removed their masks for the ceremony, exchanged vows that focused on honesty, respect, trust, and accepting challenges and growth. "Above all I will give you my love freely and unconditionally. I pledge this to you for all the days of our lives,'' they ended.

Jen Andonian and Matt Shearer were supposed to get married in Michigan. Due the coronavirus COVID-19 situation, they got married in the famous Ether Dome.
Jen Andonian and Matt Shearer were supposed to get married in Michigan. Due the coronavirus COVID-19 situation, they got married in the famous Ether Dome.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

After they exchanged rings, Searle called for the couple to bump elbows, which they did, before leaning in for the traditional kiss.

"Who would have thought we would be doing this today?'' said Andonian, thanking her colleagues as they applauded and snapped cellphone photos.

Andonian and Shearer had taken the day off and planned to return home to cook a Cuban dinner — chicken was marinating in the refrigerator — and participate in an online happy hour with family and friends.

"That was the best wedding ever,'' Biddinger said. A few minutes later, he spoke again to the group.

"All right, team, back to work.''


Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at lizbeth.kowalczyk@globe.com.