MEADVILLE, Pa. (AP) — As friends and family gathered at Frenchtown's St. Hippolyte Church for last November's wedding of Samantha and Matthew Foulk, many thought they were witnessing some sort of practical joke. There was the groom, flat-out on his back on the altar, attending his wedding on a stretcher.
Holding on bravely to an unspoken wedding-day commandment, "the wedding must go on," his young bride carried through on two years of nuptial plans despite her groom having to attend their perfect day unable, except briefly now and then, to stand up.
A year now past, the former Samantha Jo Taylor of Townville recalls putting aside the initial shock and dismay to realize her and Matthew Foulk's dream of a wedding after her fiance had herniated a spinal disc one month prior.
Granted, the honeymoon cruise had to be put on hold. But their big day was accomplished.
"It was an accumulation of issues," Matthew explained about his ill-timed back injury. "Doctors said it was from heavy lifting, spinal compensation for wearing my wallet on one side, and being hunched over desks and computers in college."
Chronic back pains around October 2011, just weeks prior to the Nov. 12 date, brought Matthew and his wife to Meadville Medical Center's emergency room and eventually the care of Dr. Brian Dalton of UPMC Hamot, Tri State Neurological Surgery president.
During the course of his month-long, pre-wedding treatment, Matthew was given two steroid injections at different intervals, meant to strengthen the muscles next to his herniated disc which would, in turn, push it back into place.
The first one improved his condition somewhat.
"The second injection actually enflamed my muscles and helped the disc strangle the sciatic nerve going into my right leg," he said. "Sitting was out. I could stand or walk with a cane for short bursts thanks to chiropractic and physical therapy.
For a whole week before the wedding, Matthew visited a chiropractor once a day and attended physical therapy twice, Samantha said.
Her husband's longest stint of standing during those painful weeks was during their vows. He lasted three minutes before having to rest.
"We didn't really have to adjust wedding plans that much overall," said Samantha. "We just added times for him to lie down and rest during the service."
Meadville Area Ambulance Service provided Matthew with a stretcher free of charge for the reception at the Meadville Elks Club.
"A lot of people were coming from out of town for the wedding; we weren't canceling," said Matthew. "We just had some minor ceremony adjustments."
The service was certainly memorable and very enjoyable for the newlyweds, despite initial reactions to Matthew's condition. Plenty of family support was present throughout the ceremony as well as for his post-wedding surgery.
"We let my immediate family know," said Matthew, outlining his and his then-fiancee's move back with parents. He spent most of his time at home in bed — the newlyweds also spent their after-wedding weeks waking up at 8 a.m. every day for physical therapy.
"The doctors had to detach my muscles to get to my spine," he said, noting invasive procedures were the final option, albeit necessary because of the steroid reactions.
"My wife became my nurse after the surgery," he added. "She dressed me, helped me brush my teeth, etc."
Surgeons removed Matthew's herniated disc by opening his spinal casing to relieve pressure on his sciatic nerve — his back muscles then expected to fill the gap and replace the disc in supportive and motorskill duties.
"It was definitely a full-time job," said Samantha of her new role. "It was still enjoyable just being with him and finally being married."
The couple remembered their wedding fondly from their new home in Latrobe, where they moved in January 2012.
"It was fine; we had fun," he added. "People said they loved it and it was pretty mild as far as concerns went. We didn't let it get us down."
"Mostly my wife, my mother and my mother-in-law planned the wedding; I was pretty hands-off," Matthew laughed. "I just agreed to be there, which turned out to be a bigger deal than we thought."
While the couple held out on the wedding, the Royal Caribbean Cruise was canceled and rescheduled for the couple's upcoming first anniversary.
"Fortunately we had travel insurance," said Matthew, as the couple prepares to finally enjoy their honeymoon trip. "It's a one-week cruise with stops at some of the Caribbean islands. It will be nice to finally take it."
"Far worse things happen to people every day," Samantha agreed. "It's certainly memorable; a wedding no one will forget."