Source: New York Times
This story began in September 2006 when Michael Stepien, the head chef at a restaurant, was walking home from his job. Mr. Stepien, 53, was cutting through an alley when he was robbed and shot in the head by a 16-year-old who was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.
As her father lay dying at a hospital, his daughter Jeni Stepien said her family “decided to accept the inevitable” and donated his organs through an organization called the Center for Organ Recovery and Education. The organization allows donor families and the recipients to keep in touch with one another after the transplant.
Mr. Stepien’s heart went to Arthur Thomas of Lawrenceville NJ, a father of four and a retired college adviser who formerly worked at a boarding school, and who had been within days of dying of congestive heart failure. “In order to get to the top of the transplant list, you have to be really hurting,” Mr. Thomas said. “Once I had my transplant, I, of course, decided I would write a thank-you to the family.”
From there, a relationship was forged through monthly phone calls, emails and letters. Stepien’s widow Bernice kept in touch with Mr. Thomas, even swapping cards on Christmas and flowers on birthdays. At times, they compared parenting tips. But the families had not thought about meeting in person until Jeni became engaged.
“One of my first thoughts in that following week was, ‘Who will walk me down the aisle?’” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, it would be so incredible to have a physical piece of my father there.’”
At the suggestion of her fiancé Paul Maenner, Jeni wrote Mr. Thomas, who said yes, but only after running the proposition by his daughter Jackie, who said it was “a wonderful idea.”
The wedding took place in the church in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, where Michael and Bernice were married. Mr. Thomas and the bride formally met one day earlier, when he suggested she grip his wrist where his pulse is strongest. “I thought that would be the best way for her to feel close to her dad,” Mr. Thomas said. “That’s her father’s heart beating.”
The two families say they want to keep in touch and will plan a get-together somewhere down the road — maybe an event with a little less pressure. “I felt wonderful about bringing her dad’s heart to Pittsburgh,” Mr. Thomas said. “If I had to, I would’ve walked.”