So many little girls spend hours daydreaming about their future wedding. And while the image of what that day might look like differs from person to person, it usually includes at least one traditional custom: being walked down the aisle by her dad. But by the time adulthood comes, the father-of-the-bride walk down the aisle can be fraught with difficult emotions and impossibilities for some women — especially if the bride’s father has passed away.
This week, a Pennsylvania bride is giving new meaning to the heart-warming father-of-the-bride tradition. That’s because when Jeni Stepien married Paul Maenner on August 6, the man who walked her down the aisle wasn’t her father, but the man who received her father’s heart in an organ transplant.
After Michael Stepien was killed in a robbery in 2006, his heart was transplanted into Arthur Thomas, who was on “death’s door” at the time of the transplant, he recently told ABC World News Tonight. But because of the successful organ transplant, Thomas was given a second chance at life. Stepien tells Babble via email that the Christmas following the transplant, Thomas wrote to her mother and the two began corresponding. The families have kept in touch ever since, with several phone calls over the past several years. But it wasn’t until the wedding planning began that Stepien recognized the perfect opportunity for the families to meet.
“Like any other bride to be, a million things sweep over you the moment you get engaged,” Stepien tells Babble. “At some point that first week, I realized I would probably be alone going down the aisle. I immediately then thought of Tom, and how much it would mean for bis family and mine if I could arrange for him to be there.”
So in the days leading up to the wedding, Jeni reached out to Thomas.
“Jeni wrote me a letter and said, ‘If you’re willing, would you walk me down the aisle’?” Thomas told ABC.
“You can never imagine what that would be like unless you actually do it because so many emotions involved in what you’re doing,” Thomas shared in a separate interview with CBS News.
And so, the two met for the first time the day before her wedding, in what can only be described as a deeply emotional gathering. In a video taken by Pittsburgh TV station KDKA, you can see Stepien placing her hand over Thomas’ chest to feel her father’s beating heart.
“Unless you have personally been through this, there is no way to describe it,” Stephen tells Babble. “You feel years worth of emotions rushing over you as you finally come to the event you’ve been waiting for. Feeling my father’s heart still beating and living on was the best present I could have ever wished to receive.”
“It truly was the best day of MY ENTIRE LIFE!,” Stepien wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday morning. “To be able to bring my dad home and have him at my wedding was an absolute dream COME TRUE! Not to mention that being married to the best person that was hand-picked just for me was beyond words the best thing that has ever happened to me. I am blessed beyond words to share our story!”
Stepien is also using her wedding as an opportunity to raise awareness about the saving power of organ donations, sharing several Facebook posts with the hashtag #OrganDonorsMatter. She encourages people to have the conversation about organ donation with your loved ones early.
“Be open and honest, and educate yourself about what your wishes are,” she tells Babble. “It can be extremely difficult for families to make that call in the midst of grief, but even more difficult when no discussion has taken place. There is a way to help others gain a second chance when donation happens! The gift is one that is selfless and generous, and always appreciated by the recipient.”
According to the National Foundation for Transplants, one organ donor can save eight lives and change the lives of more than 50 people. What’s more, almost anyone can be an organ donor, regardless of age or medical history. But contrary to popular belief, signing the back of your driver’s license is not enough to document your intentions to be an organ donor. To officially register as an organ donor, visit DonateLife.net, which notes that over 120,000 people are currently awaiting a transplant.