Many women picture their father walking them down the aisle at their wedding. Jeni Stepien was no different, daydreaming about it after becoming engaged. But Stepien’s father could not fulfill this role, as he was shot and killed in 2006. However, she found another way to have her father present for this important moment in her life.
The night before Stepien’s wedding to then fiancé Paul Maenner, she met the man who would walk her down the aisle. Arthur “Tom” Thomas, the recipient of Stepien’s father’s heart, was honored to stand in her father’s place.
At the ceremony, Thomas gave Stepien his arm and led her down the aisle. Once reaching the altar, Stepien touched his chest right before he gave her away. Thomas also took her hand when it was time for the first dance.
Stepien had reached out to Thomas in a letter months before the ceremony, and idea she attributes to the man that became her husband, requesting that he walk her down the aisle so that, even if her father couldn’t be there for the momentous occasion, at least his heart could help her start her journey towards marriage. After getting his own daughter’s approval, Thomas happily agreed.
Thomas had been in communication with the family for years, often writing letters and sending flowers or other gifts. However, the families had never met in person prior to the day before the wedding.
Jeni Stepien’s father, Michael Stepien, was on life support for 24 hours, after being shot during an armed robbery in 2006, before his family decided to stop care and donate his organs. Thomas had been awaiting a heart for 16 years, being days from death, suffering from congestive heart failure, before he received Michael Stepien’s heart during a transplant surgery.
Thomas, who is now in his 70s, and his wife both attended the service, traveling from their home in New Jersey to the ceremony in Pennsylvania, where they met the daughters of the man whose donated heart saved his life. For the first time in a decade, Stepien was able to hear and feel her father’s heart beating.
Stepien also considered it as a valuable affirmation, showing that organ donors do make a difference in the world. Thomas attributes him being able to be there with his family, including his wife and four, now grown, children, for the more than ten years since the donation to what Stepien’s family gave to him.
As reported by the Washington Post, in regards to his first letter the to Stepien family, Thomas said, “I remember telling them how grateful I was for this new lease on life and that I realized the sacrifice they made was extraordinary.”
More than 119,000 people are awaiting lifesaving organ transplants in the United States alone based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with an estimated 22 people dying every day while waiting for an organ. In 2016, more than 33,000 transplants were performed across the country.