Essential "I Do's": Epidemiology Alums Marry in Hospital During Pandemic

wedding ceremony

Jen Andonian, MPH ‘15 and Matt Shearer, MPH ‘14

Jen Andonian, Project Manager, Center for Disaster Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital; Matt Shearer, Senior Analyst, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Jen Andonian and Matt Shearer are two of the essential workers fighting COVID-19 for the people of Boston and beyond. They’re also graduates of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, each earning a Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology.

In mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through the country, they faced a tough decision. Their wedding was scheduled for March 20 in Ann Arbor, and gatherings all across the country were being canceled to slow transmission of the virus.

They called off their wedding. Then, days later, they gathered with fellow essential workers in a historic surgical theatre, in the middle of a hospital, during a pandemic, to make their vows.

Pandemic Fighters

Shearer and Andonian settled in Boston last June after Jen landed a new job. Shearer works remotely for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We do everything under a broad umbrella of health security, including some pandemic exercises in recent years. Last October one was actually a coronavirus pandemic scenario—we think about potential outbreaks every day,” Shearer said.

Andonian is with the emergency preparedness team at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s safe to say COVID has been on both our professional and personal minds for a longtime,” she said.

Before coming to Mass General, Andonian was an infection control epidemiologist and program manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital supporting their biocontainment unit. “I focused on infection control and prevention but also thought a lot about preparing and training for these unknown inevitabilities. Whether it’s SARS, MERS, or COVID, we have to prepare staff at hospitals for disease outbreaks.”

As with anyone working in a hospital, Andonian’s daily work has intensified, making sure Mass General’s COVID-19 staffing and supplies are optimized and effective. “We keep looking ahead and asking if we have the appropriate subject-matter experts to make informed decisions about the hospital’s ongoing response.”

Jen and Matt at a football game wearing Michigan attire

Future Epidemiological Power Couple

The two met as grad students studying epidemiology at Michigan’s School of Public Health. Shearer arrived in Ann Arbor in 2012, ready to dig into topics like biosecurity and health security inspired by work he did in the Navy. “I became interested while writing and updating the response procedures for a bioterror incident on my ship. The plan was essentially to quarantine, isolate everyone on the ship, and hope for the best. I thought there must be a better way to do it. That’s how I became interested in the field of epidemiology.”

Andonian arrived at the school the next year, less certain of her exact path. “I knew I wanted to work in health care but wasn’t entirely sure what that looked like. I took a class in hospital epidemiology and began investigating what careers look like. At the time, infection control in health care settings really piqued my interest. Michigan’s program is one of the few in the nation with a specialized hospital epidemiology degree.”

Andonian and Shearer know they met at a meet-and-greet for the Epidemiology Student Organization but go back-and-forth on whether they first started talking at Ashley’s or Bill’s Beer Garden. But Shearer is sure about how Andonian caught his attention: Michigan football. 

Andonian mentioned that legendary football coach Lloyd Carr was an occasional patron of her family’s restaurant outside Ann Arbor. Shearer grew up a Michigan fan watching Carr’s teams. Football opened up a conversation that soon covered many other topics: both had taken time off between undergrad and grad school, had work experience, and were navigating new lives as students. “We exchanged numbers that night,” recalls Shearer. 

Within a few years, they had graduated, become engaged, and were establishing their careers. In early 2020, they were putting the final touches on their scheduled March 20 wedding. Six days before the big day, they made the decision to postpone it. 

Jen and Matt at their wedding ceremony

Alternative Wedded Bliss

The couple had planned a small ceremony with friends and family in Ann Arbor. As the news of the coronavirus—and the virus itself—spread in the months leading up to the wedding, the pair paid close attention. “Obviously, we were keeping track of COVID-19 because of our jobs. We also began discussing how wedding plans might have to change but weren’t sure what that would look like.”

They evaluated the situation with their epidemiology hats on. They tapped public health colleagues for guidance and opinions. “We both reached out to other experts in our offices as we thought through it,” said Andonian. “We asked them if we were overreacting and could maybe proceed but with certain precautions.”

They also began hearing from wedding guests who were fellow public health professionals, particularly those in government. “They let us know they couldn’t come because of new travel restrictions or work that was simply too demanding,” Shearer said.

When they announced a postponement, guests were disappointed but also relieved. Their families were understanding and supportive, trusting not only the couple’s feelings but also their professional expertise. “Obviously, we’re sad, but we can celebrate anytime and would rather do it when everyone can be together and safe. Moving things out six months or a year doesn't mean a thing when we know that is keeping everybody safe and making all guests comfortable.”

While the family party was getting put on hold, the official ceremony would come just a week later. 

When they heard about the postponement, Andonian’s close-knit work team started planning. Someone commented that the ceremony could happen at the hospital. “Another coworker said she could marry us out on Bulfinch Lawn—another historic site at Mass General,” Andonian said. “Then our incident commander jumped in and said we can definitely make a wedding happen here!”

What began as a joke turned into a mission for Andonian's coworkers. “It ended up being this very lovely moment to share with people who, in all honesty, I spend more time with right now than I do with Matt,” she said.

The small ceremony was held in Mass General’s historic Ether Dome, known as one the first places in the world where ether was used during surgery. Andonian’s team comprised the entire wedding party and guests. Her boss, leader of the hospital’s emergency management team, walked her down the aisle. Staff from the emergency preparedness and incident command teams joined, ten in total to remain in compliance with distancing regulations. The couple was married by a coworker—the clinical operations manager for the biothreats program.

For Shearer, the gravity of the moment was clear, “It was strangely poetic—to be in the Ether Dome, everyone with masks and crisis vests on, helping us get married,” he said.

“When we got home, we just sat down on the couch. I was still in my dress and Matt in his suit. We just smiled at each other and said, ‘Did we really just get married?!' The whole experience was an absolute whirlwind,” Andonian said.

Jen and Matt at their wedding ceremony with their guests

Spreading Hope, Not Viruses

For the happy couple, the wedding was a break from the daily challenges they face at work fighting a pandemic. But it seems their joy was just what the entire city of Boston needed.

When the story of a spontaneous hospital wedding spread to the larger community, folks across eastern Massachusetts shared in Andonian and Shearer’s joy. “It was amazing how much attention it got. It ended up on the front page of The Boston Globe, literally the front page! That puts us up somewhere—in Boston anyway—with the Sox breaking the curse, six Patriot Super Bowl wins, and the moon landing,” Shearer said.

Andonian suspects their story resonated with people because we are all looking for joy and community during these challenging times. “It was a reminder that there is still a lot of good happening right now. For us as part of the broader public health community to be featured, it just shows another way public health is part of everything in our lives,” she said. “Whether you are an essential worker in a grocery store or a nursing station, whether you’re like Matt and I doing research, policy, and training—to me, it is a good reminder that we’re all in it together.”

The couple’s connection to the University of Michigan is not only about where their relationship took root but also about the experiences they shared and relationships they built with peers and faculty at the School of Public Health. 

“All the skills we have—including the skills we’ve built up over the last few years—began with the coursework, teachers, and classmates at Michigan Public Health,” Shearer said. “I leverage the skills and wisdom of those relationships literally every day in some form.”

They weren’t able to return to Ann Arbor for their planned wedding but are looking forward to when they can visit, whenever that may be, “as soon as possible,” Shearer promised.

Andonian says that, for now, we have to keep pushing ahead through the crisis. “I have to remind myself—sometimes multiple times a day—that this is what we’ve all been working toward in public health. Maybe it’s not going as smoothly as we would have hoped. But we will continue pushing for the policies, planning, training, resources, and operations that we know will move us in the right direction for the next outbreak and will keep the communities we serve healthier today.”