Most people go into a Starbucks simply because they need to get their caffeine fix. Others enter because the free Wi-fi, relative solitude, and Macchiatos are a pretty winning combination for getting some extra work done.
When Vince Villano walked into his neighborhood Starbucks for his regular Trenta Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew, he was feeling rather down. Getting his favorite coffee was little more than routine at that point and it certainly wasn’t going to help him out of his current predicament, or so he thought…
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Nicole McNeil had worked as a barista at the DuPont, Washington Starbucks for years. In all that time behind the counter, she got to know the regulars. She memorized their faces and their orders, but not much else about them. On this particular day, one of her regular faces looked rather grim indeed.
Vince Villano had come in and gotten his Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew almost every day for a while and though he’d never been terribly upbeat, he was polite, and seeing him so downcast, worried her. Nicole was nothing if not observant and seeing a long-time customer so dismayed, she felt it was her responsibility to ask if everything was alright.
Open and Honest
Vince was in no mood to talk to his barista about his complicated health problems, so he deflected and told her it was a long story. Undaunted, Nicole explained that she was getting off in a few minutes and suggested that they could perhaps sit and talk awhile before she went to pick up her children from school. Despite his reticence, Vince agreed.
Rather than beat around the bush, Vince ended up telling her the real, honest truth. To his surprise, Nicole listened. As it happened, Villano was an Army veteran who had served as a sergeant before being discharged. Back at home, he worked as an emergency medical technician, helping others. This would turn out to be ironic given the impending circumstances.
Dread the Inevitable
At 41 years old, Vince had spent much of his life dreading the current situation. Eleven years prior, the doctor had diagnosed him with a genetic kidney condition known as Polycystic Kidney Disease. Since most of his family members had only succumbed to the disease in their 50s and 60s, he believed he had more time.
Tethered to Tubes
Despite his best efforts to fend off illness and live cleanly, the disease continued to wreak slow havoc on his kidneys. This eventually meant that he would find himself tethered by tubes to a dialysis machine so that his blood could be drained, filtered, and returned to him. As if dialysis wasn’t bad enough, Vince soon learned that there were further complications.
A week before his trip to Starbucks, the most recent tests indicated that he was at the point of no return. The toxins in his body were building up too fast and his kidneys, which could have worked at least at half capacity for a while even with the dialysis, were now swollen footballs filled with cysts.
Fear and Mortality
This was not Vince’s first encounter with his own mortality, he’d faced it many times while serving with the military. This time though, the slow egress of death was hovering over him in a much more threatening manner. He wasn’t worried about his death, he worried that his teenage daughter, whom he raised as a single parent from age 2, would be left without anybody in the world.
That was the story that Vince Villano told to Nicole McNeil. His kidneys were functioning at about 4% efficiency and dropping. His debilitating condition had no treatment options left, the only thing he could do was wait for a kidney transplant to come along. Unfortunately for him, that has never been exactly a foregone conclusion.
Sharing the Story
The average wait time for someone on the kidney transplant list is four to five years. It was entirely possible that Vince would die before he received a compatible organ. Nicole offered her condolences and asked if there was anything she could do to help, even though she knew there wasn’t much. She went home that night and told her husband Justin the story. He too was troubled by the tale.
Making a Donation
Vince’s story struck a real chord with the McNeils. Justin, who was also an Army veteran, didn’t like to think of a fellow soldier and an EMT dying simply because he’d gotten a genetic raw deal. He decided there was one thing he could do to help, he could donate Vince the kidney he so desperately needed. He had Nicole contact Vince and the two met to discuss it.
A Long Journey
Vince couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He insisted that Justin didn’t have to feel obligated to donate the kidney, that he was just blowing off some stress, but Justin explained that he was happy to do it. What followed was a long, arduous journey of medical testing and the beginning of a very close friendship.
Two Vets on a Mission
Justin and Vince would spend the next few months going from DuPont to Olympia and Tacoma getting tested. Eventually, they made their way to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. When they weren’t going to doctors, the McNeils were doing everything they could to convince Vince that they were sincere in their desire to help him.
Vince was invited to McNeil family events. He came to a Memorial Day dinner they held to honor deceased soldiers that both men had served with. The two former Vets clicked almost immediately and they struck up a real friendship. Vince even got all three of the McNeil children into mixed martial arts. Still, the impending transplant loomed above them.
The two families were soon spending most holidays together. They waited for news of Justin’s suitability but at that point, even if something happened and he couldn’t donate the organ, Vince was just glad that they had become such close friends. It was that true friendship in his darkest hour that he valued most of all.
Eventually, the news came through. Justin’s kidney was primed and compatible with the donation. The two underwent hours of surgery and when all was said done, both seemed to come out of it ok. The recovery process was long for both of them, however, and it would be some time before either kidney was functioning to full capacity.
After the surgery, people kept telling Justin how amazing it was that he sacrificed his kidney for someone he barely knew, but he doesn’t think he could have done anything else. A few months of recovery and some missing work in the classroom are a small price to pay to have helped a friend get their life back.
“There’s nothing about it that I walk away with less and he walks away with…with a lot more,” he explained in a recent interview. “And I’m going to come back up to whatever level of health that I had. I’ll just carry on with my life but he gets 20 good years out of this.” Meanwhile, the two families are still seeing each other as much as possible.
The McNeils and Villanos recently spent Christmas together, sharing a meal and opening gifts in the shadow of their tree. It’s amazing that two groups of people who spent most of their lives as perfect strangers have become true friends, some would even say family; all because of one act of kindness.
Part of the Family
Nicole, the barista who set all of this in motion, feels very honored about Vince’s new connection to the family. “He feels like part of the family. It wouldn’t quite feel like a holiday or get-together without him…Every stranger is a potential friend. Not everyone is going to turn out to be one, but you never know. He’s ended up being like a best friend.”