Feb. 14, 2018
Perfect pairs: Students, alumni and even a pair of besotted therapy dogs share their VCU love stories
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Love can be found in unlikely places — the back of an ambulance, a booth in a diner, a canine agility course. But sometimes that love needs an extra connection — a boost — to help it along. Virginia Commonwealth University has provided that spark many times throughout the years. Below we share stories from couples whose bonds owe some of their strength to VCU.
Stephanie and Amir Louka
Stephanie and Amir met in the back of an ambulance. But they weren’t in need of medical attention.
They were giving it.
“We met as volunteer EMTs. Our patient was young, drunk and emotional,” said Amir Louka, M.D., an EMS fellow and clinical instructor in the VCU Department of Emergency Medicine.
The pair would soon be classmates at Eastern Virginia Medical School. But that night they were randomly paired to work a Dave Matthews concert in Virginia Beach. While attending to the patient, Amir recognized Stephanie’s patience and empathy.
“She was really taking her time with [the patient] and being very kind. But all I could think was ‘OMG hurry up already. She isn’t even going to remember this in the morning,’” Amir said. “But I also recognized the compassionate care she was providing and felt she must be that way with everyone.”
As they dated throughout medical school, he found that to be true.
“On lecture days I was always late to class, but she’d bring me milk and a bowl of cereal, knowing I wouldn't have had a chance to eat,” he said.
Their fate and studies together would soon be tested though. Fourth-year students must again apply to medical school for graduate training. There was no guarantee the Loukas would get into the same school.
Then on “Match Day,” when the National Resident Matching Program releases results to residency applicants, they both were accepted into VCU’s Emergency Medicine Residency program. Just prior to graduating medical school in 2013, they married. Last year they bought their first home in Richmond and had their daughter, Evie.
The couple had struggled to get pregnant and that experience grew their love for each other, and VCU, even more.
“We’d been seeing an infertility specialist for nine months doing testing for a cause and found no real answers,” said Stephanie Louka, M.D., also an EMS fellow and clinical instructor in the VCU Department of Emergency Medicine. “Dr. [Richard] Lucidi suggested in vitro fertilization and it worked on the first try. Then I had a difficult pregnancy. I got sick with HELLP [hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelet count] syndrome and severe preeclampsia and had to be emergently induced at 32 weeks. Evie spent 34 days in the NICU [at VCU Medical Center].”
We are now a VCU love story, plus one.
As the Loukas prepare to celebrate Evie’s first birthday, they are grateful for the support of their medical team, who are also their colleagues.
“We feel like a poster family for VCU since we both work for VCU and have had such amazing people take care of us, and our daughter, through some rough times this past year,” Stephanie said. “We are now a VCU love story, plus one.”
Shanice Barry and Derrik Gregg
The rigors of dorm life are what brought together Shanice and Derrik. Shanice was a residential assistant at Cabaniss Hall, where Gregg was working as a security guard while attending VCU. Both jobs often meant being on duty during the weekends to file incident reports in the freshman dorm. After working together for some time, a friendship started to develop.
“Since we connected through work, I started to hang out at the desk when there were not incidents so we got to know each other,” Shanice said. “I was big into getting in shape and working out and he was in pretty good shape, so he would kind of give me pointers and we would talk about workouts.”
One thing led to another and Derrik invited Shanice to lunch.
“Of course, we went to Shafer because we were in college and nobody had money at the time,” Shanice said. “We started to talk and get to know each other on a personal level.”
The pair started dating and their relationship became serious after they graduated in 2016. Shanice received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry that May and began working at the James River Insurance Co. Derrik graduated that December with a double major in criminal justice and sociology and was working at the Henrico County Jail. Shortly after settling into their new jobs, Shanice’s employer offered to relocate her job to Phoenix, Arizona.
Of course, we went to Shafer because we were in college and nobody had money at the time.
They decided “to take the jump” in October, Shanice said.
Derrick said the move has been an adventure that has allowed the couple to be more self-reliant.
“It’s an exciting chance to explore the West because I have never lived outside of Virginia,” he said. “It was an opportunity to branch out and be independent and really get to spend time with someone you care about. Being isolated from everyone, you really have to be dependent on each other; it is an opportunity to grow together.”
Shanice said Derrik’s willingness to move is a sign of good things to come.
“For him to move all the way out here with me, with his whole family back in Virginia like mine, is a really big step for him, Shanice said. “Most people don’t do that if they’re not in it for the long haul.”
Wrigley Wilcox and Ellie West
Wrigley first met Ellie at an agility class a few years ago, and the English cream golden retriever took an immediate liking to the energetic miniature goldendoodle. Their bond grew deeper in March 2016, when Ellie joined Wrigley in the Dogs on Call Therapy Dog Program, which is run by the Center for Human-Animal Interactionin the VCU School of Medicine. The program provides therapy dogs to enhance the well-being of patients, staff and students at VCU Medical Center and the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.
“Over time, they started attending more Dogs on Call events together and wanted to be as near to each other as permitted,” said Jessica Hale, program coordinator with the Center for Human-Animal Interaction. “They’re now at the point where they perform better on agility runs if the other one is present and they make eyes at each other across the room [at] events.”
The inseparable pair often attend activities together, such as Paws for Stress, which lets VCU students relax during exams and enjoy time with the Dogs on Call, and the annual Pups on the Plaza fundraising event, as well as off-campus events such as the annual K-9 Veterans Day at the Virginia War Memorial.
“As much as they love each other and want to spend time together, when they’re visiting patients and staff they focus on the humans, but you can bet they have a little pep in their step if the other is watching,” Hale said.
Robin Wilcox, Wrigley’s mom, said that whenever Ellie is around, such as at their agility class, Wrigley always runs faster, jumps higher and performs like a champ.
“Wrigley makes sure Ellie is watching him and has a strut when she’s around,” Wilcox said. “Thanks to Ellie’s support (and his mom’s dedication), Wrigley is now competing in agility trials!”
Cabell West, Ellie’s mom, claims it was love at first sight.
“They are such lovebirds (lovedogs?),” she said.
For Valentine’s Day, Wrigley and Ellie will likely be found visiting patients and staff at VCU Medical Center.
“What could be better than warming hearts on the day of love,” Hale said.
Destineé Moragne and Andraé McGowan
The Monroe Park Campus Block Party, a lavender dress, and agreement on a controversial pizza topping brought Andraé and Destineé together. Since then, the couple has embraced a busy schedule and connections on campus and beyond.
In August 2017, Andraé decided to skip a nap in favor of heading to the Monroe Park Campus Block Party with his VCU track and field teammates.
“The fraternities and sororities here at VCU were strolling in the University Commons plaza. I happened to see Sigma Gamma Rho stroll through,” he said. “What threw me off was all the girls were in their blue-and-gold colors, except one — that was Destineé.”
Wearing a lavender dress, Destineé had just given a speech to the incoming class in her role as Student Government Association president. While Destineé and Andraé didn’t meet that day, they connected on Twitter, finding agreement on pineapple as a pizza topping (“the perfect combination of salty and sweet,” Andraé said) and more.
“Because we’re both active in the university, it’s opened up our worlds to other student orgs and what other students have done. I never knew how intense the track program was, and how much of a family they actually are,” Destineé said.
Andraé, who also works at Johnson Hall and serves as a peer mentor in the Multicultural Connection Advisement Program, agrees.
“I didn’t really have any idea what Greek life was, or how SGA went about business until meeting Destineé. It was a very cool tradeoff, it really expands your horizons to see what really goes on at VCU.”
Both are looking forward to graduating in May, Andraé with a degree in homeland security from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and Destineé with a degree in accounting and minor in human resources from the School of Business plus a certificate in product innovation from the da Vinci Center. She already has a job lined up at RSM, an accounting firm.
They agree the relationship is like dating your best friend.
“Love should be synonymous with sacrifice,” Andraé said, “and when I’m sacrificing anything for her I don’t really consider it a sacrifice.”
“I really love his selflessness and how ready he is to be involved and help someone,” Destineé said.
Bill and Kitty Kinzer
The first time he met his late wife, Bill Kinzer, M.D., didn’t exactly make a great first impression. It was the mid-1950s and Bill, a medical student at the Medical College of Virginia, was having a rough week. A woman he’d been dating had recently broken up with him, and when he sat down at a booth in the popular Skull and Bones Restaurant near campus to have lunch, he was in a bad mood.
The restaurant, however, was packed and when a young woman approached and asked if he could share his two-person booth, he acquiesced. They talked a bit, but Bill mumbled a complaint about women at MCV courting vulnerable medical students. His dining partner reacted angrily — “Then we can just be friends,” she said. She ate silently and then got up and left.
A few days later, Bill went to meet his faculty advisor to discuss a paper he was struggling to write. When he got to the office, there was no sign of the professor. Instead Bill was greeted by the woman from the Skull and Bones. It turned out she was the professor’s secretary, and she made Bill a cup of coffee while he waited.
Feeling embarrassed by his behavior at lunch, Bill asked the woman, whose name he learned was Kitty, if he could take her to dinner to make up for it. She took him up on his offer.
“We never ceased talking, ate often together and six months later were married,” Bill said. “Kitty was a sponge for knowledge, and guided me through the formality of producing a medical paper, which was later published.”
Bill went on to graduate from MCV in 1957, and he and Kitty moved to Ohio for his internship and residency. Their two daughters were born there. Bill's three-year military obligation was served in Germany, and on return to the U. S. he opened an internal medicine practice in Annapolis, Maryland. Kitty earned a master’s degree in library science and became a librarian at St. John’s College. They retired on the same day in 1998. Bill did locum tenens work with the Indian Health Service, Kitty took another master’s degree in humanities and they traveled a lot. Their marriage of 47 years ended with her death in 2003.
“We talked a lot and were kind with each other, and we knew when to be still,” Bill said. “We were in love throughout our time and liked each other’s nearness.”
Karina Peralta and Jean-Pierre Tapia
Karina and Jean-Pierre can trace the start of their relationship in no small part to a shared love of video games.
The two were at a Thanksgiving party hosted by Muevelo, a competitive salsa, bachata and hip-hop student organization at VCU, in the fall of 2016 when Jean-Pierre asked Karina to dance and she agreed. When the music stopped, instead of going their separate ways they stayed locked in conversation, “just standing around and talking because of how well we hit it off,” Karina said.
Still, Jean-Pierre was reluctant to leave with Karina when she asked him to join her and some friends for a bite to eat. Then Karina received a text notification on her phone, and Jean-Pierre heard something familiar and beloved that made him forget any lingering nerves — the power-up sound effect from “Super Mario Bros.”
Jean-Pierre “freaked out,” Karina said. She then convinced him to call her cell phone and he was astonished that her ringtone was a dubstep remix of “The Legend of Zelda.” “He freaked out even more,” she said.
“It was a good icebreaker,” Jean-Pierre said with a laugh.
Soon after that evening, Jean-Pierre tagged Karina on a WWE/“Super Smash Bros.” mashup mod video and the two engaged in trash talk about who was better at the game. That led to a game-night date. They have been together ever since.
Karina is now a senior studying social work, and Jean-Pierre, who is majoring in exercise science with a concentration in physical therapy, plans to finish his studies in the fall. The couple said their relationship works because they pay attention to each other and talk frequently and openly.
“We make sure to communicate through any issue that we have,” Karina said. “We made a promise to each other that we would try to work things out no matter what life throws at us, so I think that’s one aspect of our relationship that we’re extremely proud of.”
Video games continue to play a central role in their time together. They often hang out and play “Mario Kart,” “Mario Party,” “Soul Calibur” and “Super Smash Bros.,” among others. Jean-Pierre said they rarely play against each other, preferring to trade a controller back and forth and act as cheerleaders rather than rivals.
“We love [the games] so much because it’s a great form of bonding with each other, and it reminds us both of the first time we hung out,” Karina said. “We even share custody of a [Super Nintendo]!”
Hannah and Jade Sullivan
When Hannah met Jade as a fellow student at the VCU Brandcenter, she wasn’t just meeting a future business partner, she was also meeting her future wife.
“I unofficially met Jade in our first semester during Creative Thinking,” Hannah said. “Our class basically had a huge Pinterest board of all of our assignments. Her posts were always majestic with hazy wolf references. I would always wonder who was posting it.
“Later, Jade was auditing a class that I was in. She asked if she could join my team. Of course I said yes, because she seemed very interesting and creative.”
The connection as work partners was immediate and organically grew into something more.
“We just always wanted to hang out and it always felt that way,” Jade said. “I don’t think there was an exact moment, it just was.”
The two have been together both romantically and professionally since 2014. Two days after graduation, they moved to New York to work as a team at Wieden + Kennedy, where Hannah was an art director and Jade was a writer/creative technologist.
They married in 2016 and left Wieden to start — of all things — an insurance company back in Richmond.
Pogo is an online insurance platform for the self-employed. It helps small businesses, startups, contractors and freelancers find the best business insurance. Its platform makes things easier for users through design, user experience and language.
Changing industries was a big shock, Jade said. “Insurance definitely isn’t cool, and we knew that, but it was really a crazy juxtaposition going from the coolest work environment ever to a world where everyone wore suits and ties and talked in definitions.”
But the Brandcenter had taught them how to look at things differently, and to find new angles to solve old problems, Hannah said.
“We always had to figure out a fresh approach,” she said. “So, we applied that line of thought directly to insurance. It’s clunky, outdated and stuffy. With Pogo, we’re trying to be the opposite of that. But with all of the same benefits.”
Spending that much time with your spouse could be a recipe for disaster. But the Sullivans point out that working together is how their relationship started.
“We were together nonstop in school, because we were always finding a way to work on projects together,” Hannah said. “In a way, being creative and solving problems together is when we connect the most.”
“She’s my partner in every way,” Jade said, “and somehow it’s always been easy.”
Nourhan Ibrahim and Dillard Patton
“Well played, Rodney the Cupid Ram,” said VCU School of Medicine student Nourhan about the fateful meeting of her husband, Dillard.
The couple met as seniors in March 2011 on the way to the Interfaith Meditation Room in the University Student Commons. In the hallway, they were introduced by their best friends, who happened to be roommates. Nourhan was studying biology and pre-medicine, and the couple began dating in May 2011 after Dillard received his engineering degree.
As they spent more time together, it was apparent their differing personalities brought balance and harmony to the relationship.
“I’m an engineer and engineers are typically straight to the point and technical. We don’t beat around the bush,” Dillard said. “But Nourhan has a very bubbly personality that brings excitement to every situation, even those I wouldn’t typically enjoy.”
Nourhan, who expects to obtain her medical degree in 2020, agrees.
“One of the things that drew me to him is how calm he is,” she said. “He’s on the calmer side and I’m more loud!”
The couple married on Dec. 17, 2011, the weekend after Nourhan graduated, and now lives in Short Pump.
“When you get married you’re not getting married to benefit yourself; you are getting married to benefit the relationship,” Dillard said. “Nourhan has a way of bringing out the best in every situation. Everything is fun with her.”
The intimate ceremony took place at Deep Run Park and Recreation Center in Henrico County and brought together the couple’s closest friends and family. Nourhan said it was the perfect end to her undergraduate academic career.
"I thought, ‘You’re almost done. You are going to get married and then you can do a happy dance!’” Nourhan said.
Mallary and Andrew McEvoy
Mallary first noticed her future husband, Andrew, at a Commonwealth Singers audition in 2006.
“I remember seeing him across the room, singing his solos, and I thought, ‘That guy’s a really good singer,’” she said.
It took nearly three years, however, for Mallary and Andrew to start dating. They had common friends and both studied music in the School of the Arts, but they didn’t become a couple until the summer of 2009, ahead of Mallary’s final year at VCU and as Andrew was preparing to move to Baltimore to study classical guitar at the Peabody Institute.
“People kept telling us we should date,” Andrew said. “But when I was available she was dating somebody and vice versa. It did take awhile.”
They bonded that summer over craft beer, live music and science fiction (their first date, dinner and then beers at Mekong Restaurant, ended with a marathon viewing of the television series “Battlestar Galactica”). When Andrew left for Baltimore, he and Mallary decided to keep the relationship going.
“We thought, ‘Let’s give this a try,’” Andrew said. “And then it wound up being an excuse [for me] to come back to Richmond and keep playing and making music here because I would see her.”
A year later, Mallary added a layer to the distance relationship when she moved to Philadelphia to take a job with Teach for America and enroll in graduate classes at Chestnut Hill College.
“We were a [multicity] couple for a while — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond,” Andrew said. “[But] it became clear we were building a union in whatever city we were in.”
The distance, Mallary said, encouraged them to value the time they had together.
“I also got really familiar with Amtrak,” she said. “I would be sitting in the dining car on a Friday night — after teaching all day — with a glass of wine, doing homework on the train.”
In 2011, Andrew returned to Richmond. Mallary followed in 2012. He plays gigs throughout town and teaches at Longwood University and Randolph-Macon College. She teaches fifth-grade math and science in Powhatan County. They were married in 2015 and recently purchased their first home.
It has been a dizzying journey, they said, but one they have enjoyed together.
“The more you talk about what you picture for your life with somebody else, the more you start to grow that vision together,” Andrew said. “You share it.”
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