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Weak heart no match for strong love: Patient ties the knot in hospital

Dawn Brazell | brazell@musc.edu | March 16, 2017

Cooper wedding
Photo by Sarah Pack
Carolyn Lowery and Henry Cooper discuss plans for their upcoming wedding. See their photo gallery.

It’s 11 a.m. on a Friday, and Henry Cooper rests in his hospital chair, conserving his energy before his upcoming surgery to treat his advanced heart failure. His eyes light up when his nurse case manager Amanda Ghent enters with the wedding cake.

It’s an item not currently on his diet. His fiancee, Carolyn Lowery, beams as well. It may not be the ideal time or setting, but they both know they’ve waited long enough. They plan to tie the knot March 5 in the mezzanine of the Ashley River Tower at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Cooper wedding
Photo by Justyn Lamb
 
Dr. Brian Houston escorts Carolyn down the "aisle" at MUSC's Ashley River Tower March 11. 

Henry’s cardiologist, Brian Houston, will do the honors of walking Carolyn down the aisle. As Ghent exits with the cake, Houston pops his head into the room to check on Cooper. It’s the day before the wedding.

“No cold feet – right?” he jokes. “No crazy bachelor’s parties planned for tonight?”

Henry laughs and shakes his head. Houston nods. “I don’t want anyone jumping out of cakes or anything tomorrow,” he says, grinning at the couple. “Thank you for letting us participate. The whole team is excited.”

About that, Houston isn’t joking.

Henry says he’s been amazed how quickly everyone rallied together to make this happen.  When nurse practitioner Jamie Beumel learned the couple wanted to get married before Cooper’s surgery to implant a left ventricular assist device known as an LVAD, she jumped into action. She and Ghent put their managerial talents to the task of how to get court approval for a wedding despite Henry’s inability to travel downtown to sign a license.

Then there were details to be settled about the cake (donated by Harris Teeter at Sea Island Shopping Center), the flowers (provided by Tiger Lily florist) and photography to be covered by nurse Justyn Lamb Miller who works a couple floors above. There were questions about the minister and whether Henry should shed the hospital gown

Not much debate there: Yes was the resounding answer. Houston’s input was the icing on the cake. Henry says when Houston told him he was dressing up, he decided he had to, too.

The excitement has been infectious, says Ghent. “It’s my first wedding. It’s nice to do something so fun and exciting. And it’s neat how everyone’s coming together to make this happen.”

No one could be happier than Carolyn. She and Henry, 56, have been together for 18 years. “He asked me to marry him 10 years ago,” she recalls. She didn’t answer because he had had a couple of cocktails, and she didn’t think he was serious. When Henry asked again a few weeks ago in the ICU, this time she said yes.

Cooper wedding
Photo by Justyn Lamb
 
The couple share a special moment after their wedding. 

Henry says there are two important women in his life, Carolyn and his daughter. “When I found out that I was this bad, I decided it was time." He counts himself lucky. Males in his family tend to die young of heart conditions. His brother died under age 40. “In my immediate family, I’m the longest lasting male member.”

The down time in the hospital gave Henry thinking time. He thought about how it probably was important to Carolyn to marry and how she had just let him be the way he was without trying to change him. “When you get a scare like this, you get a little softer. It probably does take a scare to soften your heart.”

Not wanting to wait any longer, Henry asked his doctor if he could get married before his surgery, March 14. Houston said yes. Thirty minutes later the ball was rolling so fast, they were amazed, he says, pointing to Ghent. “It was like she was the wedding coordinator. We couldn’t have planned it any better.”

Amanda Ghent with the wedding cake
Photo by Sarah Pack
 
Nurse case manager Amanda Ghent (aka wedding coordinator) says the wedding picked up everyone's spirits. 

Carolyn agrees, saying they appreciate how everyone has rallied around them and how Henry’s proposal has meant the world to her. Henry grins. “She was like a fox in a chicken house doing circles racing around the track.”

She’s done a great job of caring for him and has been “after him” for years to take better care of himself, he says. They both know his surgery is serious. An LVAD is designed to increase the amount of blood that is pumping through the heart. It is needed because he has a condition called cardiomyopathy, which means he essentially has a very weak heart.

Houston explains a normal ejection fraction or measure of how much the heart pumps each beat is around 60 percent. Henry's is around 15 percent. His heart was so weak that he had to be put on a continuous intravenous drip of medication to "boost" his squeezing function to make sure his heart pumped enough blood around to keep his other organs functioning, he says.

Cooper with Houston on his wedding day
Photo by Justyn Lamb
 
Cooper heads to get married, accompanied by Dr. Houston, his cardiologist. 

“While that medication can be useful in the short term, it carries real risks over the long term and actually can cause cardiac arrhythmias and death.  Prior studies show that people with a heart as weak as Henry's have a 75 percent chance of dying within a year and less than 5 percent of them are alive at 2 years.” 

Henry's LVAD, which is a small pump with a rotor turning anywhere between 2,000 and 12,000 revolutions per minute, circulates blood around the body continuously. “It essentially does the work of the heart.  Since the pump turns continuously, many of our patients actually won't have a pulse but will feel fine.  We hope that this pump will allow Henry to eventually recover to the point of being able to qualify for a heart transplant.” 

Henry certainly hopes so.

He had been feeling tired and had been struggling just to get a good night’s rest. Henry admits he had been too stubborn to make some lifestyle choices he should have made earlier, such as quitting smoking. He has decided it’s time for a change and to do what he can over the choices he can make in life.

“What I don’t have control over, I leave in the hands of God.”

And tomorrow, he’ll be a married man. He’s grateful for the opportunity and for all that the staff has done to make it such a happy occasion.

“It’s like we’ve had a whole outpouring of love from the top down to the bottom.”


Editor's Note: Henry's surgery March 14 went well, and he's recovering nicely with his wife by his side.