Nina Marino, 19, and Joey Williams, 21, hoped to get married on Sept. 4 in the chapel at St. Joseph’s Children Hospital in Tampa, Florida. But their plans changed quickly just one day earlier when doctors told the couple that Marino, who had terminal cancer, wouldn’t make it through the night.
“The doctor encouraged us that, if we wanted to be married, we should do it that day,” Williams, of Clearwater, tells PEOPLE. “It was a lot all at once. Nina just said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ “
So they did. Just hours after the devastating conversation with doctors, Marino was in a wedding dress in her hospital bed wearing a flower headband and carrying a bouquet in her hands. Because Marino was too weak to walk to the hospital’s chapel, staff and family members scrambled to turn the teen’s room in the intensive care unit into the perfect wedding venue.
“It wasn’t the wedding of our dreams but it was the wedding that made our dreams come true,” Williams says. “It was really important to her. It was one of the things that she absolutely wanted to do, one of the things I wanted to do.”
Photos from the Sept. 3 ceremony showed Williams and Marino surrounded by about 30 family members, friends, and hospital staffers they said their “I dos.” Williams smiled in his tuxedo, and planted kisses Marino’s cheek.
“I was really happy because I got to marry my best friend. I had wanted to do that since we started dating,” the widower tells PEOPLE. “It’s something we’ve known we wanted to do. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew that it was probably going to happen. So I wanted to do everything that we wanted to do. She said in the hospital that she didn’t want to die without us getting married.”
As the group worked to prepare the last-minute wedding, the photographer they initially hired was unavailable. So, they called on Nil Patel, of Patel Creative, who rushed to the hospital.
“I was an absolute emotional wreck on the inside, while trying to act calm and professional on the outside,” Patel tells PEOPLE. “The joy and strength everyone showed was something very profound to me. The entire family showed a type of strength for Nina I’ve never seen before in my life.”
Patel first shared the couple’s story with Love What Matters.
Marino died three days later, on Sept. 6.
Marino and Williams had been friends since they were 8 years old, living just 10 minutes away from each other.
They began dating in June 2017 — one month after Marino was diagnosed with undifferentiated sarcoma which quickly spread to her lungs. She had a tumor removed from her head and underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy.
“It was really scary,” Williams tells PEOPLE of Marino’s health journey.
He says that although he and Marino’s family knew her condition was “bad,” doctors had never given her a specific amount of time to live — until Sept. 3.
“The hardest part has been not having her here. She’s been a part of my life since she was 8 years old,” Williams says of Marino. “She was amazing. She made everyone smile. She loved everyone and everyone loved her. I don’t know how she did it. But she genuinely made everyone she came into contact with absolutely adore her.”