Bride escorted by man with dad's heart

Mr Thomas walking Ms Stepien to the altar last Saturday in the same Pennsylvania church where her parents were married. Mr Thomas, who suffered from congestive heart failure, was the recipient of Mr Michael Stepien's heart after the latter was robbed
Mr Thomas walking Ms Stepien to the altar last Saturday in the same Pennsylvania church where her parents were married. Mr Thomas, who suffered from congestive heart failure, was the recipient of Mr Michael Stepien's heart after the latter was robbed and fatally shot 10 years ago.PHOTO: LAUREN RENEE DESIGNS

She wanted dad's heart to be at wedding, and asked transplant recipient to give her away

NEW YORK • The bride beamed as she walked down the aisle of a Pennsylvania church on the arm of a white-haired gentleman - the man who received her father's heart in a life-saving transplant operation.

Ten years after her father was brutally murdered, Ms Jeni Stepien knew she wanted his heart to be at her wedding. So, she asked retired college adviser Arthur Thomas, the man who received his heart, to give her away.

"It has been the best day of my life," the 33-year-old elementary school teacher told ABC News in her strapless ivory gown after last Saturday's wedding just outside Pittsburgh, in the same church where her parents were married.

She had met Mr Thomas, 72, for the first time only the day before.

"About two months ago, I got a letter from Jeni," Mr Thomas told Agence France-Presse.

"She said, 'I am the daughter of the person whose heart is inside you, and I wondered if you and your wife Nancy could come to my wedding. I would love it if you walk me down the aisle,' " he recalled.

"I was stunned. I thought... it is so perfect that she would want her dad's heart at the wedding."

When they met at the wedding rehearsal, they embraced.

"We just gave each other a huge hug. I put my hand on my wrist and my pulse is pretty strong, and I asked her if she would like to feel my pulse. Then she put her hand on my heart," Mr Thomas said. "It was a very warm and beautiful moment."

After he walked her to the altar, Mr Thomas put her hand on his heart, gave her a kiss and then handed her over to her groom Paul Maenner, a 34-year-old engineer.

"Thank you so much for coming," the bride said to him tearfully, according to the video aired by ABC.

It was the closest she came to her father since Mr Michael Stepien, 53, was robbed and fatally shot on his way home from his job as a chef. His teenage attacker was jailed for 40 years, US media reported.

Devastated by his death, Ms Stepien and her mother Bernice decided to donate his organs.

Mr Thomas, at death's door with congestive heart failure, was chosen as the recipient. The father of four from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, said he was walking two days after the operation in late 2006, was home after 10 days and went skiing after six months.

"I wrote them a letter thanking them for saving my life," he said.

Through the Centre of Organ Recovery and Education (Core), which allows recipients and donor families to communicate if they wish, the two families got in touch. Over the years, they have been in regular telephone contact.

He now hopes to see the family again and work with them to raise awareness about organ donation.

"We hope everyone who has been touched by this story takes a few moments to make the life-affirming decision to register as an organ, tissue and cornea donor and choose the gift of life," said Core president and chief executive Susan Stuart.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Bride escorted by man with dad's heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe