A Pennsylvania bride who lost her father to tragedy 10 years ago found herself walking down the aisle with the man who received his heart.
Jeni Stepien was unable to hold back tears when she embraced Arthur Thomas for the first time Friday and felt her father’s heart beating inside him.
“Can you feel it?” Thomas asked her in a video taken by Pittsburgh TV station KDKA. She tearfully held his wrist and chest and quietly nodded.
Stepien’s father, Michael Stepien, was killed in a 2006 robbery when she was 23. After he spent 24 hours on life support, the family accepted the inevitable and donated his organs, Stepien told The Huffington Post.
At that time, Thomas, who Stepien’s family calls “Tom,” had been waiting nearly 10 years for a heart transplant at his home in New Jersey.
“He was going to die if he did not receive a new heart in the next several days,” Stepien told HuffPost via email Sunday. “Tom received my father’s heart within the next 48 hours.”
The Christmas following his transplant he wrote to Stepien’s family thanking them for what they had done.
The families kept in touch through letters and phone calls over the years but it wasn’t until they started planning Jeni Stepien’s wedding that she saw the perfect chance for them to meet.
“When my fiancé proposed, one of the first things I thought of was ‘but who will walk me down the aisle?’ I could think of nobody more meaningful than Tom,” she said. “My fiancé suggested I write him a letter; that way Tom would feel in no way obligated or pressured by my request.”
A few days after sending the letter she got a phone call, she said. Tom’s answer was yes. She met him for the first time on Friday.
“Meeting Tom was so incredible!” she said. “He is such a gracious and kind-hearted man. You could tell he was so thankful for his life, and that radiated from him.”
The decision to invite Thomas brought joy to her entire family, Stepien added.
“My mother was very touched by the idea also and thought it was a very appropriate gesture to honor my father. I knew how important it would be for her and my sister to receive this piece of closure by finally meeting Tom as well,” she said.
“I wanted to make the day special for everyone, not just for myself.”
In sharing her story, Stepien said she hopes it sends a message to others: Organ donors do matter.
“Organ donation can provide an opportunity for a second chance at life. It is an exceptional gift, one that is selfless and generous, and always appreciated by the recipient,” she said. “We were able to see how wonderfully Tom was progressing all of these years, simply thriving, and [that] in turn, helped us with our own grief.”
This story has been updated to include Stepien’s comments.