If you’re feeling even slightly emotional today, you should probably stop reading now. An American woman whose father was killed almost a decade ago has just been escorted down the aisle on her wedding day – by the man who received her dad’s donated heart.
Jeni Stepien’s father Michael was murdered on his way home from work in September 2006, after a gunpoint robbery went wrong. The teenager who shot him was convicted of second-degree murder and is currently serving 40 years to life in prison, according to the New York Times.
Jeni, only 23 at the time of the murder, told the newspaper that she and her family “decided to accept the inevitable” as her father lay in hospital. Not wanting him to die in vain, they arranged to have his organs donated.
More than 250 miles away from the Stepiens’ home in Swissville, Pennsylvania, Arthur Thomas was dying. The father-of-four from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, had been diagnosed with a chronic rapid heartbeat known as ventricular tachycardia some 16 years earlier.
By 2006, he was suffering from heart failure and was “at death’s door” – when he got the call that his doctors had found a new heart.
The organisation through which the Stepiens arranged to donate Michael’s heart, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, allows donor families and the recipients to keep in touch after the transplant has taken place.
“In order to get to the top of the transplant list, you have to be really hurting,” Thomas says. “Once I had my transplant, I of course, decided I would write a thank-you to the family.”
From there, the Stepiens and Thomas began to build a tentative relationship through phone calls, emails and letters. Thomas and Jeni’s mother, Bernice, exchanged cards at Christmas and flowers on birthdays. But nobody in either camp seriously considered meeting in person until Jeni became engaged in October 2015.
“One of my first thoughts in that following week was, ‘Who will walk me down the aisle?’” Jeni says. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, it would be so incredible to have a physical piece of my father there.’”
Jeni’s new fiancé suggested that she get in touch with Thomas – whom the Stepiens call “Tom” – and ask if he would do the honours. After consulting with his own daughter, Thomas agreed. (His daughter, he says, thought it was “a wonderful idea”, and advised that he started practicing walking down the aisle.)
Thomas and Jeni met for the first time the day before the wedding took place in Swissvale, in the church where Jeni’s parents had been married. When the 72-year-old warned Jeni that he might become overwhelmed by emotion, she reassured him that she felt the same way, telling him: “I’ll be right there with you.”
Before they entered the church, Thomas suggested to Jeni that she grip his wrist – where his pulse is strongest – so that she could feel her father’s heart beat as she walked down the aisle. In photos from the day, Jeni can be seen touching Thomas’s chest.
“I felt wonderful about bringing her dad’s heart to Pittsburgh,” says Thomas. “If I had to, I would’ve walked.”