27-Year-Old Man Given Weeks to Live Marries 'Love of My Life' in Beach Wedding: 'The Happiest I've Ever Been'

"If I was going to have someone break my heart, I wanted it to be him," Emily Draper Knisley tells PEOPLE

hunter Knisley, emily Knisley
Hunter and Emily smile with their kids at their wedding. Photo: Ivory Row Photography

When doctors told 27-year-old Hunter Knisley he only had weeks to live, strangers sprang into action to grant his last wish: to marry his fiancée, Emily Draper Knisley, in their dream beach wedding.

"She's the love of my life," Hunter tells PEOPLE.

It's a connection that dates back to birth. Emily was born just four hours after Hunter at Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster, Ohio — so close that their Social Security numbers are one digit apart.

At 8, Hunter was diagnosed with Becker Muscular Dystrophy, a condition similar but more rare and slower to progress than Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Signs include difficulty with physical activity.

"When I started playing T-ball, I ran different than the other kids and I was a lot slower," Hunter says.

Regardless, "I thought he was adorable," says Emily, who was a year behind Hunter at Sheridan High School in Thornville, Ohio.

The feeling was mutual, but Hunter was so taken by Emily's beauty, he struggled to reply when she tried to talk with him.

"She was so pretty that I was so shy and I didn't say anything to her," he says.

Cut to over a decade later: In January 2019, a picture of Emily appeared in Hunter's Facebook feed. He shot her a note to say hello.

hunter Knisley, emily Knisley
Hunter and Emily say "I do" in front of the ocean. Ivory Row Photography

"I was like, 'Hey, might as well check in,'" he says.

They bonded over a shared love of Destiny's Child, the Backstreet Boys, Johnny Depp films, horror movies and Harry Potter.

"Right off the bat, we felt like we were best friends," Emily says of their meaningful conversations, including their 13-hour initial chat.

A few months later, in March 2019, they went on their first date. It didn't take long for Hunter's sense of humor to win her over.

Do you have a love story the world needs to know? Send the details to love@people.com for a chance to be featured in Real-Life Love, People.com's new series dedicated to sharing extraordinary romances and heartfelt gestures.

"He's quirky and he's a really good guy," she says.

"We click," Hunter adds. "And she's gorgeous. I can't stress that enough. She's just a really good person and just wonderful to be around."

On their third date, Hunter told her that heart failure was common for patients with his type of muscular dystrophy. He said he didn't know how long he would live.

hunter Knisley, emily Knisley
Hunter and Emily pose for a photo at their wedding. Ivory Row Photography

"I told her there are a lot of uncertainties about where my health can go, and how soon that can happen, when that can happen," Hunter says. "I was very up front with her about it."

Emily went home and thought deeply about the situation. She has two daughters from a previous relationship, and this would impact them too, she thought. Ultimately, she realized that no matter who she ended up with, there are no guarantees in life.

"If I was going to have someone break my heart," says Emily, "I wanted it to be him."

In November 2019, the couple and Emily's daughters — Delanie, 6, and Delilah, 4 — moved in together in Junction City, Ohio.

"I loved being able to wake up every day and be with them all," Hunter says.

With everything going well, he proposed in December 2020. Emily says her divorce wasn't final, so they couldn't get officially married just yet. Instead, they tattooed wedding bands with each other's initials on their ring fingers.

"We decided to do the tattoos, just because it was permanent," Emily says. "I think it meant more. It's not something you can take off."

Hunter Knisley, Emily Knisley
Emily holds the couple's son Maverick after giving birth. Courtesy of The Knisley Family

Their next big milestone came with the birth of their son, Maverick, on March 22, 2021.

"He cried," Emily remembers of Hunter's reaction. "And then the nurses helped him cut the cord."

Years earlier, doctors told Hunter that if he had a son, there was no way he would have muscular dystrophy, but if he had a daughter, she would be a carrier.

"I've always wanted a son," says Hunter. "It was my dream."

Emily Knisley, Hunter Knisley
The couple catch up in the hospital. Courtesy Knisley Family

But their new life as a family of five was about to be turned upside down. About a month ago, Hunter went for a routine echocardiogram at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"I was feeling great, better than usual," says Hunter, who has been hospitalized three times this year: once with RSV, once with pneumonia and once with swelling in his legs.

But the doctor told Hunter he was in end-stage heart failure and only had weeks to live. He was immediately admitted to the hospital.

"I was shocked," Hunter says.

Emily was picking up her daughter from school when Hunter called with the devastating news.

"It was like a stab in the heart," she says. "I couldn't breathe, it was awful — not what we were expecting at all."

Hearing it from the doctors didn't make it easier.

"They told me it was really bad," she says.

When doctors asked if Hunter had a final wish, he said he'd like to get married in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and take his kids to see the ocean.

Emily says she called her attorney and pleaded that her divorce be finalized so that she could officially marry the love of her life before he died.

"Knowing that I had a limited time left, we just knew that we wanted to be married to each other," Hunter says.

They went to the courthouse and were legally wed on April 14, with the seaside ceremony on the horizon. The couple had always talked about having their wedding at Myrtle Beach, where they both have happy childhood memories.

"It was special to both of us," Emily says.

So hospital staff reached out to Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, who connected them with Myrtle Beach wedding planner Amanda McDowell.

A former nurse at Nationwide Children's Hospital's Muscular Dystrophy Clinic, McDowell — who describes Hunter as "a gentle spirit" — quickly planned the wedding at no charge, partly thanks to donations from local businesses.

"I thought, 'I'm going to do whatever I can for these guys. They deserve it,'" McDowell tells PEOPLE. "I just felt like God just orchestrated this whole thing for them, just to give them hope in the midst of bad news. They needed this right now."

After Emily found her wedding dress — a lace, flowy gown that was "everything I wanted," she says — at a second-hand store in Lancaster, the couple was ready for their big day.

The April 21st ceremony was "amazing," Hunter says. "Everything I ever wanted."

Their kids were overjoyed too. As Delanie pulled her siblings in a wagon down the aisle, "she was squealing and jumping up and down," Emily remembers. "They were all extremely happy."

Then came their first dance, to "Me and You" by Kenny Chesney. That moment, says Hunter, was "the happiest I've ever been."

Emily agrees.

"People that we've never met, that didn't owe us anything, did so much for us, and it was perfect," she says.

Hunter Knisley, Emily Knisley
Hunter and Emily's kids — Delilah, Maverick and Delanie — snuggle up. Courtesy of The Knisley Family

Despite the uncertainty they're facing, the couple says they want to share their story now to inspire others.

"We've been through a lot," Emily says. "There's just always something brighter and better in every situation."

Hunter is spending the time he has left crafting, watching movies, playing with the kids and listening to Emily sing.

"It's like an angel," he says of her voice.

Hunter, Emily and Maverick Knisley
Hunter shares a sweet moment with his son Maverick during the football surprise Emily planned. RM Photography

On Saturday, Emily surprised Hunter by making another one of his dreams come true: seeing their son play football.

Himself held back from the sport because of his condition, Hunter couldn't wait to watch his son play football, says Emily.

She gathered about 25 friends and family (including a couple of Hunter's elementary teachers) at their high school's football field, and everyone cheered in the stands while Hunter and Maverick took the field in matching jerseys.

"It was the thing Hunter never got to do — and will never get to see his son do," Emily says.

With Emily beside Hunter's wheelchair, the trio ran from the 50-yard line to the end zone. When they scored the touchdown, the crowd roared, and former members of the color guard played the school's fight song.

Amidst these bittersweet experiences, Emily says she's feeling "lot of emotions."

"When I met Hunter, I knew that this was the outcome. I just never knew when," she says. "I'm sad that it's so much sooner than we expected, but I am so happy and thankful that he did randomly message me, and that we've had the time together that we've had, and we had a beautiful son. My girls just love him. He is dad."

Hunter Knisley's friends and family
Friends and family gather for Hunter's football surprise at Sheridan High School. RM Photography

"Some days are better than others," she adds. "Sometimes it doesn't feel real and other days it's a bit too real."

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

Since the beach wedding, Hunter's health has slightly improved, and he says he's feeling "pretty good." The medicine he's taking seems to be keeping him stable.

"They're not sure how long it's going to last," Emily says. "But they said it could possibly be months now. They said they couldn't guarantee it, but they said there's a possibility."

For now, they remain hopeful — and thankful for each day.

"Always keep your head up and keep going, no matter how hard things get," says Hunter. "Because time is everything."

Related Articles