On Wednesday, Vince Villano and Justin McNeil both emerged from a successful kidney transplant surgery. Once strangers, the men are now like family, thanks to Starbucks barista who took the time to simply listen to one of her customers.
Vince was a regular for years at the Starbucks in DuPont, Washington, where Nicole McNeil, Justin's wife, worked as a barista. She really only knew him as "Trenta Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew," according to the coffee chain, but one day, about two years ago, Nicole could just tell something was off when Vince placed his order.
Nicole's shift ended and she sat down to talk to Vince, an Army veteran sergeant (like her husband) who'd served eight years as an emergency medical technician. He then told her that he was recently diagnosed with a genetic disease called polycystic kidney disease — and that it was destroying his kidneys, his health and, that day, his mood.
Vince told Nicole that he was on a list for a kidney transplant, but with a standard wait time of four or five years, knew that a lot of people die while waiting — and he had two children, Kanton and Savanna, now 18 and 20, to think about. Vince's nephrologist, Dr. Partha Raguram at CHI Franciscan in Tacoma, Washington, affirmed that 80,000 people are on the wait list at any given time, and only about 16,000 receive a transplant each year.
That night, Nicole told her husband about Vince's story and, without pause, she recalled Justin saying, "I have a kidney. He can have mine."
Nicole started inviting Vince over for family get togethers and he and Justin, a seventh-grade English teacher who now serves in the Army National Guard, became fast friends.
"It's like brothers," Justin said.
But Justin's initial offer to donate a kidney, however selfless, remained far fetched, as the two never thought he'd actually be a match.
As fate would have it, medical testing discovered that Justin and Vince were as close a match as possible without being biological family. As Vince (who once weighed in at 240 pounds and now struggling to stay at 195) became increasingly sick and weak, they set a date with doctors.
On Christmas this Tuesday, Vince spent the day at the McNeil's with their three children before the two dads headed to the hospital on Wednesday — which also just happened to be Justin's 36th birthday.
On Wednesday, Nicole told Starbucks that the surgery was successful, and an ultrasound revealed that Vince's new kidney was functioning well and both men were on the mend.
Justin's brave decision to donate his organ to a complete stranger gave Vince at least another 20 years of life, according to the veteran's doctor.
“It’s truly the gift of life — of a second life,” Raguram said.
But to Justin and Vince, the best gift that came from that chance conversation in a Starbucks, has been the amazing friendship they've forged.