The Starry Night painter Vincent van Gogh once wrote in a letter, “…hope is in the stars.”
The famous painting provided a themed setting for Eric Weiner and Jessica Steklof’s first date in January 2018 at the former Starry Nites Café in Rochester, a new romance just beginning under the glowing stars of van Gogh’s night sky.
Since then, the young couple has dealt with darkness that would challenge even the brightest stars and the most experienced matches, but with help from their team at Wilmot Cancer Institute, they were able to cement their relationship with marriage.
“I never had any sense that I wouldn't be able to go. Right from the start, the team made me feel reassured that they'd get me there and it felt like they each took a personal interest,” Weiner says.
Weiner has Merkle cell carcinoma, a rare but aggressive type of skin cancer. Diagnosed in 2019, he wasted no time getting to Wilmot Cancer Institute to see Deepak Sahasrabudhe, M.D., a medical oncologist who treats skin cancer. His team acted quickly, starting with immunotherapy and surgery with Peter Prieto, M.D., M.P.H. He also had radiation with Kenneth Usuki, M.D.
Once Weiner healed from surgery, the couple moved back in together and time passed. Just hours after getting engaged on Valentine’s Day in 2021, they got a phone call. It was his 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 images, his team suggested not waiting until August to be married like the couple had originally planned.
So, on Sunday, June 6, they decided they’d have a small ceremony of about 16 family members and close friends. Weiner and his oncology team worked with the Palliative Care team at Wilmot, including Rob Horowitz, M.D., Chief of the Division of Palliative Care at URMC. Together they came up with a pain management plan and explored wedding locations within the hospital in case Weiner wasn’t well enough to leave.
The Friday before the wedding, Weiner hadn’t been feeling well and had to be admitted to the hospital, to Wilmot Cancer Center’s Seventh Floor (WCC7). But the team remained determined.
“We told them about the wedding and asked if they thought I'd be able to make it and they immediately started working with the goal of controlling my pain enough to get me that one day out of the hospital,” he says. “They made sure I was medicated enough to be mostly pain free but still lucid, and I don't know what had to happen behind the scenes to get me out but they did it.”
Weiner got a “day pass” on Sunday to leave for his wedding, which took place in Penfield, in the backyard of Steklof’s grandmother.
The couple pulled off a picture-perfect day, filled with love for each other. One of Weiner’s nurses, Natalie Santacesaria, BSN, RN, happens to also be a wedding photographer, so she and her husband took photos and video.
Their day started with a first look, the most memorable part of the day for the couple. They signed the Ketubah and exchanged vows under the Chuppah. Then, family members offered toasts and celebrated with dinner and cake.
And then Weiner returned to the hospital for the night. His Wilmot nurses had put up congratulatory signs and streamers in the room to make it festive. Knowing 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 the newlyweds.
“The nurses on the floor, they were so amazing,” Weiner says of his WCC7 team.
Weiner is out of the hospital now, on his fourth round of chemo and third round of radiation. The couple spends time together doing what they love – relaxing outdoors, playing board games and enjoying TV shows.
They’ve not forgotten the original wedding date, though. They have hopes of visiting the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit in Buffalo in August, in honor of their first date at Starry Nights Café, so they may sit under van Gogh’s night sky once more, keeping love in their hearts and hope in the stars.