It can be easy for couples to recite wedding vows, on cue, without realizing the depth of the words. But for Tiffani Blackwell and Jerrell Ellerbe, the commitments “to have and to hold,” “for better, for worse” and “in sickness and in health” had profound meaning.
The couple, who met on the dating site Plenty of Fish in January 2013, have shared not only love and happiness, but also significant pain and heartache, during their three years together.
Tiffani’s flirtation with online dating began as a New Year’s resolution with friends in 2011. With a new year came new prospects. “I made a pact with all my girlfriends to join together, but I think I ended up being the only one who stuck with it,” Tiffani recalls with a laugh.
But her early ventures were disappointing. “Most people who sent messages weren’t taking it seriously,” she says. “They just wanted a message buddy, or they would tell me they wanted to meet and would never set a date.”
Frustrated, Tiffani was about to hop offline for good when she spotted Jerrell’s page. Taken with his photos, she decided to make the first move. After weeks of trading messages and chatting on the phone for hours, they decided to meet for coffee in Old Town Alexandria on Super Bowl Sunday.
Both were nervous, but their conversation was surprisingly relaxed. “I really liked her personality,” recalls Jerrell, a 32-year-old Park Police officer in Prince George’s County. “I thought that she just seemed really down to earth, very easygoing and personable.”
After the date, Tiffani couldn’t wait to share her enthusiasm with her family and called her mom as soon as she got in her car. “He’s so cute!” she told her.
By the end of their second date, dinner at Public House National Harbor, it was clear they were both interested in pursuing a relationship, and they agreed to take down their online profiles.
“After each date, I couldn’t wait for the next one,” Tiffani says. “I was just so excited.”
In the months that followed, they discovered they shared many of the same values, such as a dedication to family and hard work, and interests including video games and football. In March 2015, on a five-day trip to the Dominican Republic, Jerrell proposed on the sandy beaches of Punta Cana. In July, Tiffani moved into his home in Hyattsville, Md. Eager to be married, they set a date: March 19, 2016.
“We were having the time of our lives,” Jerrell recalls, smiling. “We were on cloud 12.”
Until, that is, Sept. 21, 2015, when life changed.
For Tiffani it began that Saturday, with a head-splitting series of migraines that quickly escalated into vertigo, blurred vision and slurred speech. By Monday, she had limited mobility on the right side of her body. It took three days and three hospital trips before doctors diagnosed what was plaguing her: Tiffani had suffered a massive stroke, which left her with impaired speech, language and vision, as well as restricted use of her dominant right side.
She was only 31.
“I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Is this real? Is this real life?’ ” says Tiffani. “ ‘Am I really going through this, or is this all just a dream?’ ”
Jerrell vividly recounted the shock, pain and anger that overcame him after hearing Tiffani’s prognosis. “They told us it was on the brain stem and most of the time people end up heavily or permanently disabled or die,” he recalls. “My world was crushed.”
From then on, the central focus of Jerrell and Tiffani’s parents was providing all the support Tiffani needed to make a full recovery. “We just had to help and hope that she would get better,” Jerrell says.
It would be a long, slow road. Tiffani remained at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Virginia Hospital Center for a month, retraining her brain through therapy for nearly eight hours a day and relearning how to complete tasks that were once effortless, such as signing her name, singing her favorite song and climbing a flight of stairs.
But whether it was a good day, or more often a bad day, Jerrell was there. Most nights, he or Tiffani’s dad, Bill Blackwell, slept on a stiff plastic cot beside her hospital bed.
“He was there for her 24/7, encouraging her, giving her good advice, making sure he was providing her with what she needed,” Bill says. “Even though he was her husband-to-be, you would have thought [by his actions] they’d been married for 10 years.”
“They used to call my room the ‘party room,’ because I think I had the most visitors out of anybody there,” Tiffani adds, laughing.
During her recovery, Tiffani, an elementary school special education teacher in Arlington County, developed a new appreciation for her students and their experiences. “I think I’m more protective now . . . of my students,” she says. “It gave me a first-hand experience of what some of them experience, like when people stare. I try not to be too sensitive about it, but it really is tough not to be.”
Only six months after her stroke, Tiffani has made massive strides, especially given the devastating impact strokes can have. According to the American Heart Association journal Stroke, one-third of people who survive a stroke before age 50 are unable to live independently or need assistance with daily activities a decade after their stroke.
Although Tiffani still has difficulty reading, driving and writing, she can talk fluidly, has regained functionality in her right arm and can walk without assistance. “They did say I was one of the hardest-working people in therapy,” she says. “I think it was because I had so much life left to live.”
“To see her strength throughout this process has just been incredible,” Jerrell adds. “She keeps fighting. Every day is a fight to get her life back to normal.”
Tiffani attributes her recovery to her self-motivation, her parents and Jerrell.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to deal with this and stand by,” Tiffani says. “They would have been like, ‘Good luck! See you later!’ But not Jerrell.”
Hoping their story would inspire others and help raise stroke awareness, he self-published “Stroke of Luck,” a free e-book chronicling their experience, in February.
Regardless of Tiffani’s challenges and obstacles, the couple were committed to keeping their wedding date. On March 19, they shared their vows in front of 177 guests at Waterford Receptions in Springfield, Va. Their first dance as husband and wife was to Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky.”
For some couples, the vows are the high point of the ceremony. For others, the first kiss. But for Tiffani and Jerrell, it was her procession down the aisle that held extra meaning.
“As Tiffani started walking out, I started to rewind and think about everything that we had been through to get to this point and the time back when we doubted if she would ever walk again,” Jerrell said days after the wedding.
“ ‘Now look at her,’ I thought, looking at her walking down the aisle toward me. ‘How lucky are we to have this moment?’ ”
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