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A race to get married

He slips a ring on the crash victim's finger as she lies near death in the ICU. She squeezes his hand to say "I do."

Published February 16, 2005

[Special to the Times]
Colleen Tallent, with Jeff Perry and their baby, Cheyenne, was injured Thursday in a head-on collision as she drove home to New Port Richey. She is in critical condition.

NEW PORT RICHEY - Jeff Perry had important plans for Thursday evening. Valentine's Day was coming up, and he wanted to go shopping to pick out a gift for his fiancee, Colleen Tallent.

Jeff, 26, picked up their 4-month-old girl from day care and called Colleen to let her know he was home. She said she was headed there, too.

Later, some time after 5:30 p.m., Jeff noticed he had missed a call on his cell phone. The voice on the message was Colleen's, who said she had been in an accident. The message was maybe 20 minutes old. Jeff immediately called back.

A Bayflite paramedic answered the phone.

* * *

Jeff and Colleen met about three years ago at Hurricane's Lounge & Sportsbar in New Port Richey.

She was a hometown girl, tall and slender, a 1998 graduate of Ridgewood High who loved the Bucs and the beach. He was a recent transplant from Illinois who made his way south with a cousin when jobs went scarce in their small town.

Within a few months, they were a couple. They enjoyed fishing and attending Lightning and Bucs games. She was a Taurus, and so was he, so between them there was plenty of stubborn. Still, their personalities gelled.

The couple leased, then bought, a house on a canal in New Port Richey. Jeff gave Colleen a promise ring and signaled his intentions to marry her someday.

* * *

The accident happened Thursday at 5:28 p.m.

Colleen, 24, a warranty administrator for M/I Homes, was on her way home from her office in Tampa. She was driving north on Gunn Highway, just north of Race Track Road, when a 1997 Plymouth going south crossed into her lane. The two cars crashed head-on, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Colleen's mom recruited a family friend who is a notary public to perform the ceremony. Jeff scribbled some vows, traditional and brief, on notebook paper. He asked Eric to serve as his best man.

The Plymouth's driver, 21-year-old Robert Sullivan of Hudson, was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and later cited for driving on the wrong side of the road. Colleen, who was not wearing a seat belt, was flown to the same hospital.

* * *

Colleen's pregnancy had come as a surprise, but a good one. Baby Cheyenne, born in October, became the center of their world. They had the house, their daughter, their beloved dogs, their jobs at M/I Homes, where Jeff worked as a construction supervisor. Everything but a white picket fence, muses Jeff's cousin, Eric Perry.

In December, Jeff decided the timing seemed right to make their engagement official.

He waited for the perfect sunset, wrapped Colleen's ring - a princess-cut diamond set in gold - in a heart box, then tucked the box inside Cheyenne's blanket. He drove them to the beach at Gulf Harbors. He wasn't nervous.

With the baby in his arms, Jeff recalled, he told Colleen that Cheyenne had a present for her.

Colleen cried. And said yes.

They didn't set a wedding date. They wanted to wait until Cheyenne was old enough to be their flower girl.

* * *

Nurses routinely remove jewelry from ICU patients. When Jeff got to the hospital Thursday evening, they handed him the princess-cut diamond. He put it on his key chain.

By Friday afternoon, doctors had lost hope for Colleen. A chaplain told family and friends to say goodbye.

But Jeff, 26, had something else he wanted to say. He went to her bedside and asked if she would marry him right there, in intensive care.

She squeezed his hand.

Colleen's mom recruited a family friend who is a notary public to perform the ceremony. Jeff scribbled some vows, traditional and brief, on notebook paper. He asked Eric to serve as his best man.

Family members pressed into the hospital room. Cheyenne was there, but she carried no flowers. They aren't allowed in the ICU.

Jeff held Cheyenne in one arm and clasped Colleen's hand.

Do you Colleen take Jeff to be your husband?

Hooked to life support machines, Colleen could not speak, but she nodded her head "yes." She squeezed Jeff's hand, tried to open her swollen eyes. Jeff gently slid Colleen's ring on her finger. He kissed her and leaned Cheyenne in close so her face could touch her mother's.

Then Jeff took the ring back off.

* * *

Under county law, Jeff and Colleen aren't legally married. Couples typically must apply for a marriage license before they wed. Lawyers hired by the family are working to sort out the legalities.

But God witnessed the union, the family says, and that's the most important thing.

"Colleen came in here as a Tallent," said her mom, Karen DiTullio, "and she's leaving as a Perry."

She believes her daughter will pull through. Jeff wants her to so badly. They are asking for prayers and urging people to donate blood. Colleen has needed a lot of it.

* * *

On Tuesday, four days after doctors said she wouldn't make it, Colleen still was fighting for life. She remains in critical condition. Sullivan, the other driver in the crash, was in fair condition.

Jeff sits stoically in a cramped hospital waiting room, surrounded by family and pictures of his new wife. Except for one 30-minute shower break, he hasn't left the hospital. Instead of celebrating Valentine's Day at the Arigato Japanese Steak House in Clearwater, Jeff read Colleen her first valentine from Cheyenne.

Colleen's princess-cut diamond hangs low on a gold chain around Jeff's neck, close to his heart, until she can wear it again.

A trust fund has been set up. To donate, call Safety Harbor Financial Group, LLC, (727)793-0092 or toll-free at 1-800-975-0092.

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 07:01:33]

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