May 22, 2019

Bridget Perez was in intensive care and couldn’t make it to her daughter’s graduation. With the help of Vanderbilt nurses, the graduation came to her.

“Pomp and Circumstance.” Tears. Cupcakes. All in an intensive care unit.

Bridget Perez, right, was in intensive care when nurses arranged to have her daughter Jaszmon's high school graduation brought to the unit. Photo by Tavia Smith

Tears were flowing as Jaszmon Perez and her mother Bridget Perez stood up at Jaszmon’s graduation ceremony in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at Vanderbilt. Photo by Tavia Smith

Bridget Perez couldn’t make it to her daughter’s graduation, so a team led by Vanderbilt nurses brought the graduation to her.

Bridget, 36, has been hospitalized for many weeks and is on the transplant list for a new lung.  She is undergoing Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) therapy, which uses a machine to support heart and lung function.

Even in the midst of these life-threatening health struggles, the main thing Bridget has been talking about for weeks is how disappointed she is to be unable to attend her daughter Jaszmon’s graduation from Kenwood High School in Clarksville.

For Bridget and her family to see Jaszmon graduate in an actual ceremony…we knew it would mean so much to them.”

Bridget’s nurses Allison Jagoda, RN, and Julie Taylor, RN, thought about how to help ease their patient’s sadness. They first came up with the idea to bring in symbols of graduation, such as celebratory balloons, for Bridget to give Jaszmon.

Then the ideas got bigger. Why not bring the actual graduation to the hospital?

Jagoda and Taylor got to work.

“Graduation is such a monumental milestone to experience,” Jagoda said. “For Bridget and her family to see Jaszmon graduate in an actual ceremony…we knew it would mean so much to them.”

Taylor contacted Marcus Heaston, the principal at Kenwood High, as well as Garry Chadwell, the assistant principal, and began planning a surprise hospital ceremony. Other staff were brought into planning the event, which would include music and cupcakes.

But for this to be a surprise, a cover story had to be concocted, and that’s where some staff craftiness came into play. Bridget was told that some local TV stations wanted to do a story about the ECMO machine, and she was asked if it would be OK with her to participate. She agreed.

Employees and family members line the hallway to congratulate Jaszmon on her high school graduation. Photo by Jessica Pasley

So, on Tuesday, May 21, a couple of TV cameras and local reporters came in ostensibly to interview Bridget and her family about her experiences as a patient.

But, unknown to her, behind her room curtain the hallway was abuzz with quiet excitement as medical staff lined the hallways on the 5th floor Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit. Jaszmon was there, wearing her black cap and gown; the school officials Heaston and Chadwell and the nurses Taylor and Jagoda were out there too.

It was time for the surprise.

Suddenly Perez’s room filled with music. It was the traditional graduation song “Pomp and Circumstance,” and then the curtain was pulled back to reveal a hallway full of people clapping.

As the TV cameras recorded the scene, Jaszmon, along with Taylor and Jagoda, processed into the room.

Tears came to Bridget’s eyes as the trio entered her hospital room, accompanied by the applause and cheers of her family and all the staff who could get within sight or earshot.

Marcus Heaston, principal at Kenwood High, speaks at Jaszmon’s graduation. Garry Chadwell, the assistant principal, watches from behind Heaston. Photo by Kristin Smart.

It wasn’t easy for Bridget to stand up, but with the help of Matt Warhoover, her cardiopulmonary perfusion specialist, she did. With tears streaming down her face, she stood to welcome and congratulate her daughter. The mom and daughter embraced as the cheering continued.

It was time for Jaszmon to graduate.

The Kenwood school officials, Heaston and Chadwell, wearing their cap and gowns, appeared at a podium in the doorway of the hospital room and held a short ceremony as the mom and daughter held hands.

“Graduation is an event that is celebrated not by the one who runs the race swiftest, but by the one who shows endurance,” the principal, Heaston said, from behind the podium. “Jaszmon, you’ve run this race with dignity and class and shown the ultimate form of resiliency.”

Bridget and Jaszmon held hands as Assistant Principal Chadwell called Jaszmon’s name and awarded her her high school diploma.

Jaszmon and her mom walked a lap around the hospital unit with nurses in tow to secure Bridget and manage the ECMO machine.

“Jaszmon, you’ve run this race with dignity and class and shown the ultimate form of resiliency.”

Staff members clapped, wiping away tears for the new graduate and her proud mother.

“It was absolutely awesome,” Jagoda said, after the emotional ceremony. “To see all these people here who took time out of their day, it really proves it takes a village. I hope Bridget will always cherish this moment and that it lifted her spirits and brings her a little joy.”

The nurses said they hope that Bridget sharing her story will bring awareness to organ donation.

Jaszmon, who plans to study to be a nurse, said the ceremony meant the world to her. Her mother, who was shocked by the surprise, agreed.

“I wanted to go home for it, but I’m glad I got to experience it here at Vanderbilt,” Bridget said. “It’s been hard for Jaszmon to focus on graduation, but she’s been a tough woman and I’m thankful she has been with me every step of the way.”

UPDATE: Bridget Perez continued to have health struggles and, sadly, she died on Oct. 17, 2019. Her obituary is here.