Who would have thought that a single conversation between strangers could save a man with polycystic kidney disease? Until now, Nicole McNeil, a cheerful Starbucks barista can’t believe how she ended up saving the life of Vince Villano, a regular customer in the café where she works.
McNeil often served Villano a cup of coffee and even though she knew his name and his order, she didn’t know anything else about the man.
“I knew him as ‘Trenta Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold,” McNeil said.
One day, while Villano was having his usual cup of coffee, McNeil noticed that he seemed down. She approached him and asked him what’s going on. Knowing that the barista was busy; Villano was hesitant to open up. However, McNeil was worried about the man so she suggested they talk after her shift.
It was only then that she learned about Villano’s past. It turned out he was a veteran of the United States Army just like her husband. He worked as an emergency medical technician for 8 years and found out he has polycystic kidney disease 11 years ago.
“When I was first diagnosed, I felt like, ‘Well, I’m dying’,” Villano said. “It was not my first encounter with mortality. I had some situations in military. But this was really out of my control. There’s nothing you can do. It’s kind of black cloud that hangs over your head all the time.”
His kidneys were getting weaker each day and he was forced to undergo dialysis treatments. He was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant but he knew he had a little chance to receive a donated organ. This made him worry about his two children, Kanton and Savanna, who were only 18 and 20 years old.
Bothered by Villano’s revelations, McNeil mentioned their conversation to her husband and she was stunned by his response. He said, “I have a kidney. He can have mine.”
At first, McNeil found it hard to figure out his husband’s instant willingness to donate his kidney to a man he’s never met. However, she then realized that her husband is the kind of person that will do such a selfless act.
“He cares about people almost more than any anybody I’ve ever met,” she said. “He’s the kindest person I’ve ever met. So, when he said, ‘I’ll give my kidney,’ it seemed like, ‘OK, sure. Yeah, you will.”
The McNeils started hanging out with Villano and his family and as expected, the two men bonded straightaway.
“It’s like brothers,” said Justin McNeil. Of course, McNeil didn’t forget his offer to Villano. They had genetic testing done and it was a match.
On December 26, 2018, Justin McNeil’s 36th birthday, Villano had his kidney transplant. He’s been feeling better since the transplant and has seen a new version of himself.
“I look in the mirror now and I don’t recognize the person I see looking back,” Villano said.
According to Villano’s nephrologist, Dr. Partha Raguram, getting a transplant provides nearly 100 percent kidney function. He said, “It’s very documented in literature the improvement in everything from cognitive ability to physical energy to the ability to have gainful employment and a productive family life.”
Now that Villano’s health is getting better, the two families continue to bond with each other. In fact, the two veterans have formed a special relationship beyond being donor and recipient.
“Every stranger is a potential friend,” said Nicole McNeil. “Not everyone is going to turn out to be one, but you never know. He’s ended up being like a best friend.”