When Matthew Brown bought a ring to propose to his girlfriend, Hannah Reese, he couldn’t wait to pop the question.
“He asked me to marry him in his mother’s living room at a family get-together,” Reese, 24, tells PEOPLE. “He said he had wanted to plan something big, but he bought the ring that day and just couldn t wait.”
But the Iraq war veteran and his bride-to-be’s wedding didn’t come together quite as quickly as the proposal.
Though the McKeesport, Pennsylvania, couple began saving for their dream wedding after getting engaged in June 2012, Brown lost his job just six months later. Then, just months after Reese gave birth to the couple’s second child, a son named Colton, he was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease that affects voluntary muscle movement.
“The doctors told me that Colton’s disease was fatal,” Reese says. “They said all I could do was take him home and love him. It was every mother’s worst nightmare.”
Through their heartbreak, the couple still longed to celebrate their family by making their love official. With Colton’s frequent hospitalizations and need for round-the-clock care (he can’t sit up, use his arms, eat or swallow), planning and paying for a wedding felt impossible.
One week after receiving her son’s heartbreaking diagnosis, Reese learned about the Warrior Wedding Giveaway, a contest that gives Pittsburgh-area veteran couples the chance to win a dream wedding at Kimpton Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh, and encouraged Brown to apply.
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In his entry, Brown, 31, explained that he had just returned home from a difficult year-long tour in Iraq when he met Reese in 2007.
“She pulled me from my darkest places and helped me become the man and the father that I am today,” Matt wrote. “Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. I have to say, without Hannah, I most likely could have become a statistic. I was on a path of destruction. I was alone and scared. She helped me to see brighter days, urged me to seek help for the demons I was battling, and set me on the right path.”
Thousands voted to give Reese and Brown the wedding of their dreams. Reese was in the hospital with Colton when Brown called her with the good news.
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“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I felt like all of a sudden there was a light at the end of this horrible tunnel.’ ”
In just three months, wedding planning planner Bonnie Walker and Kim Racan of Studio E Entertainment pulled together the wedding of Brown and Reese’s dreams.
“They couldn’t have made it more perfect for us,” Hannah recalls of her December 13 wedding day. “It was the best day ever.”
The planners even went out of the way to include Colton, who was pulled down the aisle in a white wagon by his big sister Alayna (who served as flower girl) and even joined his family for a first dance.
Reese says she was heartbroken when the wedding was over, but amazed to find that her family’s story had reached so many other parents in the SMA community. Reese has joined these parents in their advocacy efforts to lobby the FDA to give their children access to experimental treatments.
“I just feel like this all happened for a reason because so many people have reached out about Colton,” she says. “Thanks to this one day, so many doors have been opened that could potentially save our son’s life.”