Terminally Ill Woman Plans to Marry Her Rescue Dog in 'Big Italian Wedding' For Charity
Looking back on her life, Lilly Smartelli feels she has done almost everything: traveled to Italy, lived on a boat, received several degrees and much more.
Smartelli, 55, has found herself reflecting on her past more than she usually does. In the summer of 2017, the travel nurse was diagnosed with a pulmonary diffusion defect that has likely left her with a year or two to live.
“I have a defective membrane in my lungs and I have a problem processing oxygen. There is nothing they can do about it. It’s kind of like replacing a little part in a car they don’t make anymore,” Smartelli told PEOPLE, adding that she will have increased difficulty breathing unless she gets a full lung and heart transplant.
The Michigan native first noticed symptoms while living on a house boat in San Diego, California, in 2017. Smartelli started experiencing sudden fainting spells.
“They couldn’t really figure out what was wrong, except that I shouldn’t be on the boat by myself,” she said.
Following her doctor’s recommendation, she left her blissful life on the boat behind and moved to Arizona, where she received more medical attention and the root of her symptoms, and the prognosis that came with it, were discovered.
“When you get news like that, it makes you start wondering about you life,” Smartelli said. “What haven’t I ever done. I have kind of done everything.”
Smartelli realized there was one thing she wanted: “a big Italian wedding.”
“It’s a big deal for the girl to get married and have a big wedding, and I just never met anybody.” she said.
After deciding she wanted a wedding, it didn’t take Smartelli long to realize that she already had met the perfect partner. It was her rescue dog Bernie.
“Bernie and I can pretend to get married,” she remembers thinking.
“Bernie and I are like magnets. I always joke that he is my husband,” Smartelli added.
The animal lover first met her groom in October 2011 at a pet adoption event and was entranced by his eyes that were “so deep and philosophical looking.”
“I wasn’t supposed to get a dog, but there was something about him that said, ‘Please help me!’ ”
Smartelli adopted Bernie, and a week later adopted another rescue dog, Spinner, to keep him company.
“Spinner loves Bernie, but Bernie loves me,” she explained.
This love has inspired Smartelli to follow her dreams and try to make a ceremonial wedding to her dog happen in the limited time frame she has been dealt.
Not one to sit around and wait for things to happen, the proud pet parent wrote and self-published a book, The $5 Dog Wedding, filled with the many incarnations Smartelli’s dream wedding to Bernie could take with the right support.
In all of these adorable examples there is the same heart. While Smartelli would like to have this wedding for herself, its main purpose would be to benefit others — specifically organ donors and animal rescue founders.
In all the imagined weddings in Smartelli’s book, the wedding gifts are donations that go to support organ donation and animal rescues, because these are two causes close to the bride-to-be’s heart.
“They get celebrated because I don’t need presents, so all the presents and glory go to them,” Smartelli said.
With a rescue dog as her groom, Smartelli’s connection to animal rescues is obvious. She chose organ donation as her other cause because, along with potentially needing a donation herself, Smartelli donated one her kidneys to a childhood friend in need in 2007. She has seen first hand how this selfless gift can transform a life.
Now that Smartelli’s wishes are out there in the form of her book, she hopes that one of her proposed scenarios becomes a reality.
In particular, Smartelli and Bernie have their paws crossed that the book’s morning talk show wedding scenario is their real wedding. Ideally, Smartelli and Bernie would get married on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts, a bone marrow donation recipient and rescue pet lover, watching on amidst a crowd of organ donors and animal rescue founders.
Until Smartelli finds the means to make her charitable wedding real, she is doing her part by giving the proceeds from her book, which is available on Amazon, and online store to Donate Life America and different non-profit animal shelters across the country.
Big Italian wedding or not, Smartelli hopes her efforts to make her dreams come true inspire others to register for organ donation and adopt their next pet.
To learn more about Smartelli and Bernie, and to buy The $5 Dog Wedding, visit the book’s website.