Bride walked down aisle by father's heart recipient

Jeni Stepien says she was overcome with joy when the recipient of her late father's heart walked her down the aisle in Swissvale, Pennsylvania.
Jeni Stepien is walked down the aisle by Arthur Thomas, who received her father's heart in a transplant.
Jeni Stepien is walked down the aisle by Arthur Thomas, who received her father's heart in a transplant.PHOTO: LAUREN RENEE DESIGNS

NEW YORK (AFP) - The bride beamed as she walked down the aisle of the 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, Jeni Stepien knew she wanted his heart to be at the 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 Saturday's wedding just outside Pittsburgh in the same church where her parents married.

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

"About two months ago, I got a letter from Jeni," Thomas told AFP. "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 added.

"I was stunned. I thought, 'oh my god, it's 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'd like to feel my pulse. Then she put her hand on my heart," Thomas said.

"It was a very warm and beautiful moment."

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

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

It was the closest she came to her father since Michael Stepien was robbed and fatally shot on his way home from his job as a chef. His teenage attacker is now in prison, US media reported.

After he died, the Stepien family decided to donate his organs through the Centre of Organ Recovery and Education.

Thomas, who was at death's door suffering from congestive heart failure, was the recipient. He lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

The father of four told AFP that two days after the operation he was walking, 10 days later he was home and after six months he went skiing.

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

Over the years, he was in regular contact with the Stepiens by telephone.

He sends flowers on holidays and swops parental advice with Sapiens' mother.

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

"Doing all this together this past weekend brought us closer together," Thomas said, describing the Sapiens as "wonderful."

"When a family gives life to someone they don't even know, in their darkest moment... it's unbelievable."

The bride and groom left for their honeymoon overseas on Monday.