When you look at Karen Jensen’s wedding photos, what you see is fairly common: a woman embraces her father, who sits beside her in a wheelchair; an altar is draped in white cloth; blooming carnations and daisies—all white—sit before a chapel window.
It’s what you don’t see, though, that made Karen and Brad Jensen’s ceremony so unusual.
Just out of the frame was a social worker who helped Karen arrange the whole ceremony a week before it was originally planned. On the other side of her dad, dutifully out of the camera’s sight, stood a nurse monitoring his IV. And just beyond the chapel doors were the halls of a hospital.
Karen had a lifelong dream of her dad walking her down the aisle. She was 25, living in Phoenix, about to graduate with a master’s in social work, and about to marry her high school sweetheart. A few weeks before the wedding, her father, who had lymphoma, was emergently admitted to the hospital. She and her fiancé made plans to move up their wedding date.
"My mom put me in touch with the floor’s social worker," Karen says. "She helped us figure it out. Could he leave his room? Would we have to get married in his hospital room?"
Karen and Brad prepared for a different wedding—in an ICU room, with a bishop and only their parents. But the day before the in-room ceremony, her father’s care team allowed him to go to the hospital chapel. The family could, they said, have the service there.
"We were able to get our people together," Karen said. "My maid of honor, our wedding party—all of that." Karen was thrilled. The only thing they couldn’t arrange in time were the flowers. No matter: a ceremony in a chapel, not in a hospital room.
When Karen opened the doors to the chapel the next day, she was shocked. "The social worker had worked with the chaplain. They were able to get flowers and decorate. It was very emotional. It was an unbelievable touch."
Much of her father’s care team had come to the ceremony. His nurses, nursing assistants, and social workers from around the hospital were there. Staff members were crowding outside the chapel itself.
"I thought it was pretty amazing that people were willing to share in that special moment for us," Karen says. She laments their absence from the photos now, but she knows they were just trying to be polite.
Her father insisted Karen and her husband have a reception a week or so later. So many people were coming from out of town, he said. He wanted other family to have the chance to celebrate. About a week after the reception, he passed away in the hospital.
"We were lucky," Karen says. "My mom and dad got to walk me down the aisle. Having my dad in the wheelchair, being monitored the whole time, was just so thoughtful."
Later that same month, Karen decided make a shift in her field. She had planned to use her master’s degree to go into child protection.
"After this experience, I knew I wanted to be in medical social work. It was so profound to me that these social workers were able to take this challenging time in our lives and intersperse it with some joy," Karen says.
Now, 20 years later, she finds herself at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) as a social worker.
"Life goes on even if you’re sick," Karen says. "So you still have to find the joy in those things—those everyday life things."
She looks for ways to administer doses of joy to her patients at HCI.
"I encourage patients to reach out to their care teams if there’s something they want that’s important to them. Talk to us. You’d be surprised at what can be done—especially when you have this kind of caring team and people who are willing to go that extra mile."
If it weren’t for that social worker, Karen would have had a very different wedding.
"Everybody thought it was going to be this terrible, sad occasion. It really wasn’t," Karen says. "There were tears, but they weren’t from sadness. They were wedding tears."