Ten weeks ago, Kenny Quesenberry's head, neck and shoulders were immobilized by a halo brace, a Frankenstein-like metal and plastic device that surrounds and is attached to the skull to keep patients with spinal cord injuries as rigid as possible.
Yesterday, Quesenberry, 23, was walking unassisted through the hallways of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington, proudly holding the hand of his bride.
In an afternoon ceremony attended by nurses, therapists, doctors and several patients in wheelchairs, Quesenberry and his bride, Mary Albert, exchanged marriage vows in a small auditorium decorated with poinsettias and a large Christmas tree topped with a tinsel star.
For the newlyweds, the ceremony marked a chance for a new beginning that many thought Quesenberry would never see after his neck was crushed in an industrial accident in Duluth, Ga., in September.
"I've been looking forward to something good happening for three months," said Quesenberry shortly before the 2:30 p.m. ceremony. "I want to go back home and get into the swing of things like a normal family."
Dr. John Toerga, the hospital's associate medical director, said Quesenberry had made a remarkable progress since his accident.
"We're very optimistic about his recovery," Toerga said. "He walks well, although with some halting steps."
Quesenberry is expected to be discharged from the hospital today. He plans to spend a few days in Duluth, in the couple's new apartment, then visit relatives in his home town of Blacksburg, Va., before taking a honeymoon in Florida.
Doctors expect Quesenberry will recover 80 to 90 percent of his mobility, although his left hand, still limp and weak, may never regain its full strength.
Yesterday, Quesenberry, dressed in a black tuxedo with a red bow tie, looked like any other nervous bridegroom on his wedding day as he paced the hallways with his best man, Thomas Henderson, a nursing assistant.
Two floors up, Albert, 32, was putting on the last touches of makeup and getting last-minute advice from Quesenberry's mother Wanda, who had flown in early in the day to surprise her son.
Quesenberry and Albert, who had been dating for three years, had plans to marry before his accident. Quesenberry insisted on having the wedding at the hospital on Irving Street NW because he wanted his "hospital family" to attend.
About 50 people gathered in the auditorium to watch the double-ring ceremony. Quesenberry and Albert looked into each other's eyes as they recited the vows read by the Rev. Lorenzo Ford.
A quartet of three hospital workers and a patient in a wheelchair began to sing "There Is Love (The Wedding Song)," and Albert started to cry softly, dabbing her eyes with long, white gloves.
After the ceremony, those in the crowd sprinkled rice on the newlyweds.
The ceremony contrasted the long, sometimes frustrating struggle Quesenberry has been fighting since the Sept. 16 accident that paralyzed him from the neck down.
"It was a Wednesday afternoon, payday, about 3:35," Quesenberry said. His foreman at the Houston Door Co. asked him to load a truck, he said.
The truck was packed with nine, 105-pound solid-wood doors, Quesenberry said. As he loosened the straps on the truck, 945 pounds of wood fell on him and broke his neck.
"I thought I was dead," Quesenberry said. "I couldn't feel anything."
Slowly, however, he regained feeling in his arms and legs, although he could not walk or feed himself. Surgeons in Georgia removed a bone from his left hip and fused the bone to his broken vertebrae, he said.
In late September, Quesenberry was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital for extensive therapy with a team of social workers, physicians, psychiatrists and vocational therapists. He was fitted with the brace in October.
Quesenberry, described by his mother as a gritty fighter, began his battle to recovery. Along the way, he became an inspiration to other handicapped patients at the hospital, said Helen Pringle, a secretary who helped organize yesterday's wedding.
"He was like a little brother," she said. "We became very attached to him."