No Shortage of Love at VTC School of Medicine In Time of COVID-19

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At the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, the time between Match Day – when graduating medical students find out where they are headed for residency – and the start of those residencies is typically filled with celebration. Beyond the academic-related milestones of Match Day and graduation that begin the graduate’s professional future, many advance their personal future, too, with marriage.

“Basically, we had a wedding with someone from the med school planned almost every weekend between April and May,” said Lena Turkheimer, a member of the VTCSOM Class of 2020. “I had been looking forward to these upcoming months. I don’t think anyone could have imagined that this would be happening right now.”

Instead, Match Day and graduation are now virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many weddings are following suit.

“I was supposed to go to three other weddings besides my own within my class in the next month-and-a-half. And none of those are happening now,” said Abby Winn, a member of the VTCSOM Class of 2020.

“I think there at least six weddings that were supposed to happen in my class in May and June and all of them are impacted,” added Stephen Owen, also in the VTCSOM Class of 2020.

Almost a quarter of the graduating class had weddings scheduled from April to June. Many are postponing because of the pandemic, while others – like Stephen, Lena, and Abby – have opted for an elopement or virtual ceremony this year with a larger celebration postponed until 2021.

While not all of the class is marrying a fellow VTC student, Abby tied the knot with fellow soon-to-be graduate Cody Roberts, Stephen married Class of 2022 member Quinn Weinberg, and Lena married classmate and fellow newlywed Stephen’s brother, Mark Owen.

Mark Owen and Lena Turkheimer

Lena Turkheimer, VTCSOM Class of 2020, and Mark Owen opted for a backyard and Zoom wedding when their original plans had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Sarah Cramer Shields

Lena and Mark were the first of the three couples to opt for a scaled-back ceremony.

They first met at Lena’s White Coat Ceremony in October 2016. Mark had come to cheer on his brother and her classmate, Stephen. Later that year, they met again at a New Year’s Eve party. They began dating long distance, with Lena in Roanoke and Mark in New York City, followed by Washington, D.C., until he was able to come to Roanoke a year ago.

After getting engaged in June of last year, they planned for their wedding to be April 11 at a Charlottesville area vineyard. Everything was on track until the pandemic hit Virginia. By the middle of March, their vendor had to cancel and rebook them for the next April 2021.

“We knew we wanted to still do something on our wedding day because, if not, it would be a bummer of a day. We also didn’t want to wait a whole year to be married,” Lena said.

They opted to say, “I do,” in Lena’s parents’ backyard in Charlottesville. The guest list included their parents, a photographer, the bride, groom – and Zoom. “I think it ended up being 75 people on Zoom – our wedding party, family, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. It was actually really fun,” Lena said. Even the officiant conducted the ceremony virtually. “We had done the legal paperwork before things got really crazy.”

After the ceremony, the bride, groom, and parents gave toasts and talked with the guests on Zoom.

Lena Turkheimer, VTCSOM Class of 2020, and Mark Owen did toasts with their Zoom wedding guests after the ceremony. Photo credit: Sarah Cramer Shields

Lena said the virtual environment allowed their guests to get creative. “I had a friend wearing a tux top with shorts. One of my bridesmaids lives in Boston, but has been down in Virginia Beach where she’s from for the last couple of months. She had nothing fancy to wear, so she wore her high school prom dress, which was hilarious.”

Even some of her family’s neighbors showed up to celebrate, in a socially distanced way. “They came to the end of our driveway with signs, which was really cute,” Lena said. “We were totally shocked by how much fun it ended up being and it still felt like a really nice and special day.”

Lena Turkheimer, VTCSOM Class of 2020, and Mark Owen opted for a backyard and Zoom wedding. Neighbors cheered them in a socially distanced way from the driveway. Photo credit: Sarah Cramer Shields

One of Lena’s friends shared a photo of the virtual ceremony on Instagram and her friend saw it. She writes for Vogue and featured an article about Lena and Mark’s wedding online.

While the day ended up better than expected, Lena and Mark are still hopeful they will be able to celebrate in person next year. By then, Lena will be near the end of her first year of residency in general surgery at the University of Virginia, so she won’t have to go far for the celebration.

Stephen Owen and Quinn Weinberg

Quinn Weinberg and Stephen Owen scaled back their wedding plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic and even made matching face masks for the occasion. Photo credit: Pat Cori Photography

A week later, Mark’s brother, Stephen, got his chance to say, “I do,” to fellow VTCSOM student Quinn Weinberg.

Stephen and Quinn met at a welcome picnic when Quinn’s class began their first year of study. Stephen was about to begin his third year of study. They became friends, and almost a year later, started dating. In November 2019, they were engaged and planned to get married on May 23 at Hotel Roanoke.

“We started to question whether we would be able to have the ceremony especially after Stephen’s brother and Lena had to cancel their wedding. That put things into perspective,” Quinn said.

“We are a lot more sober-minded as it is, because we knew what the consequences might be, which might be a little bit more unique to our situation being med students,” Stephen said.

They postponed a bigger celebration until August 2021 and moved up their vows to April 18 at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Roanoke. Their parents, the officiant, and a photographer came in person. The rest of the guests watched from their homes.

“Five minutes before the ceremony, I was setting my phone up on a tripod for Zoom. I think there were probably 150 people on there,” Stephen said. “I was trying to get them all muted, so it was a little bit more hectic than I expected. But then, it was great.”

Quinn Weinberg and Stephen Owen talk to their wedding guests on Zoom. Photo credit: Pat Cori Photography

While different than the original plan, both said it was more meaningful than they anticipated. “I looked on Zoom just to say hi to everybody before we started. I had to walk away because I started crying,” Quinn said. “Just seeing everybody there, it meant a lot obviously. Even though we wish we could have had them there with us, it still felt a lot more like they were with us than I thought it would.”

Stephen and Quinn think the phenomenon happening now may have positive implications down the road. “Maybe weddings will become a blended multimedia experience in the future so that if there are older relatives or friends across the world who can’t come, they can still participate,” Quinn said.

“In some ways, this is a shock to the system and back to reality that it’s not about the flowers or how many people are coming to your wedding or about your registry. It’s about the actual marriage that comes after that,” Stephen said.

As for their marriage, they will have to live apart for a little bit. This summer, Stephen begins general surgery residency at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. Quinn will finish up her last two years of study at VTCSOM.

They went on a pseudo-honeymoon to Asheville, North Carolina. “In order to get to Asheville from Roanoke, you go through Johnson City, so we visited it going up and coming back. We checked out some of the cool scenes, although they were closed,” Stephen said. “Normally, we would have tried to acclimate to the new city and build some community before residency began, but that’s just not possible right now.”

Cody Roberts and Abby Winn

Cody Roberts and Abby Winn, both set to graduate from VTCSOM and get married in May, decided to elope at the Hotel Roanoke. They plan a bigger celebration in February 2021. Photo credit: Pat Cori Photography.

A day before Stephen and Quinn, Abby Winn and Cody Roberts eloped on the patio of the Hotel Roanoke.

Originally a year apart in medical school, Abby and Cody met through student government and both served on a student committee for reaccreditation. By the winter of Abby’s first year and Cody’s second, they began dating.

During Cody’s third year, their relationship got more serious. Due to other circumstances, Cody took some time off school later that year. Professionally, it was a hard decision, but personally had the benefit that they would be able to go through Match Day and graduation activities together. They set their wedding for May 2 this year – a week before they would officially graduate – at the Taubman Museum of Art.

“Cody’s family is from Indiana and my family is from Boston, so both families were going to have to come in from out of town. My family would like to joke that we were having a destination wedding and the destination was Roanoke,” Abby said.

Plans seemed like they were on track until the week of Match Day. “I think even the week before match we were like, this coronavirus thing is crazy, but we’re not going to cancel our wedding. That’s insane,” Abby said. “As the news got progressively worse and things started getting canceled, we made the decision that it just didn’t make sense to continue.”

“It was a relief, honestly, just saying, let’s postpone it,” Cody added. “We still wanted to elope on our original date of May 2. We went to the courthouse to get our paperwork before everything shut down.”

As more things began to shut down, and their officiant was worried about being able to come, they moved up the date to April 17 and did the ceremony outside on the patio of Hotel Roanoke. It was just the two of them with the officiant, a photographer, and the hotel wedding planner who recorded the ceremony to share with Abby and Cody’s family later.

“Everyone was wearing gloves and masks right before the ceremony,” Cody said. “The officiant even signed our marriage license with gloves on.”

They made the best of the situation. “It ended up being a really nice night. We got catering from Fortunato, brought it home, changed into PJ’s, and watched ‘The Office.’ So, it was very normal first night of marriage,” Abby laughed. “I think it’s something we will look back on pretty fondly.”

Now, the newlyweds are preparing for a move to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for residency. Abby will do emergency medicine residency at Hennepin County Medical Center and Cody will do anesthesiology residency at the University of Minnesota.

They will come back to Roanoke for their official celebration in February. “We wanted to still create those memories. Just not now. So, we will have to leave our residencies to come back to Roanoke to get married, which we are actually excited about,” Abby said. Cody added, “We figured it would be pretty balmy in Roanoke in February relative to Minneapolis.”

Medical equation for #HokieLove?

While not all of the Class of 2020 weddings are with fellow VTCSOM students, the medical school has a reputation for making matches. While not a mission of the school (“developing physician thought leaders” is), students say the holistic and intentional process for choosing students, partnered with the school’s culture, may contribute to the matches.

“Everybody really cares about each other. I mean Stephen and I are two years apart. I have friends at other schools who are first-years who don’t ever meet the third-year and fourth-year students. Here, everybody’s invested in helping everybody else,” Quinn said.

“I have at least one really good friend per class, which is pretty cool because I’m essentially phased out,” Stephen said. “I think that, to Quinn’s point, it is the culture of the school that draws people in and the people add to that culture. It’s just a pretty cool, unique place.”