NEW YORK: 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 advisor 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, a 34-year-old engineer.
"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, 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, Jeni and her mom, Bernice decided to donate his organs.
Thomas, at death's door suffering from congestive heart failure, was chosen as the recipient.
The father of four from Lawrenceville, New Jersey told AFP that two days after the operation in the fall of 2006 he was walking, after 10 days he was home and after six months he went skiing.
"I wrote them a letter thanking them for saving my life," he said.
Through the Center 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 were in regular telephone contact.
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He sends flowers on holidays and swaps parental advice with Stepien's 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 Stepiens 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, who left for their honeymoon overseas on Sunday, could not be reached immediately for comment.
CORE told AFP in a statement that they hoped the "remarkable" public response to the story would generate greater 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 Susan Stuart, its president and CEO.
Based in Pittsburgh, the center is one of 58 federally-designated charity organ procurement organizations in the United States.