A Starbucks Barista Asked One Simple Question That Saved This Army Vet’s Life

author photo or placeholder By: Molly Denum | Last updated: Aug 24, 2023

Working in the service industry has its perks, especially when you have “regulars.” For Starbucks barista Nicole Mcneil, her day would always start with a warm smile from her favorite customer, United States Army veteran Vince Villano. But one fateful morning, Nicole noticed a shift in Vince’s demeanor. Her instincts told her that something was amiss.

Nicole’s initial hesitation had her biting her tongue, but she quickly realized that staying silent was not an option. Summoning her courage, she took a deep breath and posed a seemingly innocent question. Little did she know that this would unlock a lifesaving solution for the brave Army veteran.

A Day Like Any Other

As Nicole started her day behind the counter of Starbucks, she knew it was only a matter of time before her favorite regular walked in. True enough, Vince Villano entered with a familiar smile. But as Vince placed his usual order, Nicole couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

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As a seasoned barista, Nicole was well-versed in the art of customer service. She was aware of the value of boundaries, so she hesitated to pry. However, after weighing the options and listening to her instincts, Nicole made a bold move and asked a question that would prove to be life-changing for Villano. She was about to discover that sometimes even the smallest of gut feelings can have a big impact.

A Loyal Customer

In the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., there was one place Vince Villano could always count on for his favorite cup of coffee–the DuPont Starbucks. Vince had become a beloved regular at the coffee house. The staff knew him by name and knew his order by heart. 

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But something was different one morning as there was a palpable tension in the air that Nicole couldn’t quite put her finger on. Despite knowing Vince’s coffee order like the back of her hand, Nicole couldn’t bring herself to ask the veteran what was wrong. 

A Dedicated Employee

Nicole loved the routine of brewing coffee and chatting with her regular customers. She had become so familiar with Vince’s daily coffee order that she would often have it ready for him before he even had a chance to place it. As a barista, her small gestures of care made all the difference.

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Nicole had a knack for making her customers feel seen and appreciated. To help her remember the many unique drink orders that came her way, Nicole assigned playful nicknames to her regulars. For Vince, she had dubbed him “Trenta Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew, four pumps,” a nod to his signature order. 

The Odd Way Vince Looked One Day In January 2017 

On a frigid January day in Washington, D.C., in 2017, no one could escape the bitter chill that descended upon the city. As the doors of the DuPont Starbucks swung open, customers entered, all bundled up in their warmest layers. They were all clutching steaming cups of coffee for dear life, and Vince was no exception. 

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It wasn’t the long trench coat he was wearing, or the fact that he had his hands tucked deep inside his pockets–Nicole saw something weird with how Vince carried himself. There was a stiffness in his posture, a tension that seemed to radiate from his very being. When Nicole caught a glimpse of his face, her heart sank.

Going To Starbucks Was A Must

For many of us, coffee is a necessary morning ritual. A jolt of caffeine is necessary to jumpstart our day. Vince was no exception. But as Nicole was about to discover, there was much more to his daily coffee run than a simple desire for a pick-me-up.

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Unbeknownst to her, Vince’s morning routine had become a lifeline. It was a way to cope with the difficult times he had faced. When Nicole finally learned the truth, it became clear that Vince’s visits to Starbucks were for more than just a love of coffee. 

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A Healthy Daily Routine Could Transform Your Life

Routines make for a healthy, disciplined and fulfilling life; it is in fact one of the first lessons recruits are taught in the military. 

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Against their wish, the men are made to wake at a set time and do all their activities in a regimented style. All that is enforced on them because men who design the training plans of the military are very much aware of how impactful routines can be. Research has it that a healthy routine to inculcate is waking up early every morning. 

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Give Yourself A Little Push

We bet Vince often had a couple of hours to kill, every day, before resuming work. His days in the army must have helped him normalize waking while most people are still under the sheets. 

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Interestingly, if you are an early riser like Vince, your body may go a little sluggish at some point in the morning. However, it all depends on the kind of job you do. So, caffeine is usually like gasoline around a spark plug: it expedites the ignition. 

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Vince’s Life-Long Ambition

Long before he became a regular at Starbucks, Vince pursued his dreams. As a young man, his sights were set on graduating from high school and attending the prestigious College of the Siskiyous in Northern California. It was a place that produced notable alumni such as baseball player Mark Acre and professional football player Dan Hawkins.

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Vince had always been driven by a singular goal–to study medicine and emergency medical management. His desire to pursue this field of study had nothing to do with the prestige of the college he hoped to attend. But when Uncle Sam came knocking on his door, the call to serve his country was something he could not ignore.

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Sergeant Vince

Vince’s journey from college to the United States Army was a long and winding road. And as fate would have it, his passion for medicine and emergency medical management led him straight to the front of the military. Before he knew it, a decade had passed, and he had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant. 

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After years of serving in the army as a lead emergency medical technician, Vince had witnessed many traumatic events that would continue to haunt him long after he left the military. Determined to turn over a new leaf, Vince decided to leave his military career behind and pursue a more conventional nine-to-five job.

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Being A Regular Employee

After years of service in the Army, Vince knew it was time for a change. So he decided to search for something new and exciting to pursue. Eventually, he landed on a branch of Farmers Insurance in Lakewood, Washington, that piqued his interest. With a fresh start in mind, Vince set out to begin this new chapter of his life.

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Vince had been looking forward to leaving behind the chaos and danger of his military career and settling into a more stable routine. But the ghosts of his past were not willing to let go of him just yet. Soon, he found himself caught in the middle of yet another harrowing experience.

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Establishing His Own Routine

Though Vince had survived the trauma of his military service, the battle to return to civilian life was far from over. Like many veterans, he struggled to adjust and find his footing outside the military. To cope, Vince created a daily ritual to anchor himself amidst the chaos of readjustment. Every morning, he made his way to Starbucks. The familiar routine of ordering his favorite cup of coffee was his way of seeking comfort.

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Meanwhile, Nicole had become familiar with Vince’s daily order. Little did they know that fate had something else in store for them. As they went about their usual business, a simple question from Nicole was about to change the course of their lives forever.

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Chance Encounters that Transform Lives

We have all had that experience before, where you look back at how you met someone with whom you share a lot together, say your spouse or best friend.

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In many of the cases, the meeting was not premeditated and happened completely by chance. Probably, if we did not attend that party, visit that mall, and in Nicole’s case—ask that question, we never would have known that special somebody as much as we do today. 

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Nicole Was Also Ambitious

Similar to Vince, Nicole also nurtured big dreams of attending college after graduating from Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington. She set her sights on the University of Washington and pursued a degree in construction management. She was a hard-working student with a bright future ahead of her.

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But fate had a way of bringing people together. As it turned out, her husband Justin, who she had met long after she started working at Starbucks, had a surprising connection with Vince. They would soon discover they had more in common than just coffee.

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The Military Careers Of Justin And Vince

Nicole’s husband Justin shared something in common with Vince–they both served in the United States Army. What is more surprising, they both held the rank of sergeant during their time in the military. Despite seeing Vince every day for years, Nicole had no idea about this shared experience until this fateful day.

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Though Nicole had served Vince’s usual coffee for years, she had zero ideas about the turmoil he had faced during his military service. But when Nicole decided to ask Vince a simple question, what started as a regular conversation turned into an unexpected bond.

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Nicole’s Years Of Service At Starbucks

Since Nicole had been working at DuPont Starbucks since 2014, she had become quite familiar with Vince’s coffee order and daily routine. But even though she saw him every day, she didn’t know much about his life outside of his morning caffeine fix.

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But that was enough for Nicole to sense that something was not right when Vince asked for his usual coffee. Nicole’s years of experience working at Starbucks gave her a unique advantage. Little did she know, her intuition would soon prove to be life-saving.

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Paying Attention To Customers’ Body Language

As a skilled barista, Nicole was much more than just a coffee server. She interacted with numerous customers every day, including Vince. She had developed a keen sense of observation and could easily detect when something was off with her regulars, thanks to her ability to read their moods and body language.

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Nicole’s barista instincts were tingling as Vince walked into the Starbucks that day. His body language suggested something was off. Nicole knew she had to act fast. She approached him with a smile and a warm greeting. She wanted to get him to open up about what was troubling him. From her experience, just talking to someone could make all the difference.

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Nicole’s Mommy Instincts Worked

Nicole’s empathetic nature wasn’t limited to just her family–it also extended to her Starbucks customers. Being a mother of three, she had developed an uncanny ability to read people’s emotions. She once shared on the official Starbucks Stories website that baristas can tell when a customer is sad and hurting. 

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Nicole’s keen observation skills were on full display the day Vince walked into Starbucks with a heavy heart. Despite his attempt to hide it, Nicole picked up on the subtle cues. His downcast expression and his slumped posture all hinted at a deep-seated sadness. 

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Vince’s Vibe Was Off

Nicole revealed in an interview with MailOnline that even when Vince seemed content, he always appeared a bit down as if he just wanted to grab his coffee and leave. It was this typical behavior of Vince that made Nicole notice something was different about him that day.

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He appeared more downcast than usual. Despite not knowing Vince on a personal level beyond his daily coffee order, Nicole felt compelled to reach out and offer support. But what could she possibly say to a regular customer she didn’t know?

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Asking Is Caring

After brewing his go-to drink of a 30-ounce vanilla cold brew with extra vanilla, Nicole mustered up the courage to ask Vince a seemingly simple question. Little did they both know this question would be the catalyst for a life-changing moment.

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All it took was three words. Nicole asked him a simple yet powerful question, “Is everything OK?” Even though Vince wasn’t initially open to sharing, Nicole persisted and nudged him a bit harder. She was determined to help her customer in any way she could.

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Being Caring Is Life-Saving

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Nicole offered Vince a listening ear and some of her time. She told him she had about fifteen to twenty minutes before she logged out of work, so she had half an hour to chat before picking her kids up. It was a generous offer, considering Nicole had her obligations.

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She felt compelled to help Vince, and that’s what she did. Nicole didn’t let Vince’s initial reluctance discourage her. Vince was taken aback by her persistence, thinking it would take too long to tell her what was wrong. But Nicole surprised him by saying that she had the time to listen. Finally, Vince agreed to sit down and talk. 

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Knowing Each Other Better

Nicole joined Vince at one of the tables. As they talked, they soon discovered they had more in common than they thought. When Vince learned that Nicole’s husband, Justin, was also an Army veteran the connection was instant.

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Vince’s downcast demeanor that day wasn’t just a case of post-military blues, as one might expect from an Army veteran. It turned out that the reason for his melancholy was something completely different–it was health-related.

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Vince’s Diagnosis

Vince revealed to Nicole that he had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic condition that causes the kidneys to be filled with cysts, leading to their eventual shutdown. It was a sobering revelation that left Nicole wondering how she could help her regular customer.

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As Nicole learned more about Vince’s condition, she discovered that polycystic kidney disease ran in his family. Tragically, his great-grandparent passed away due to the disease’s complications, such as high blood pressure and kidney failure.

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What Is Polycystic Kidney Disease?

The U.S. National Library of Medicine describes polycystic kidney disease as a condition that wreaks havoc not just on the kidneys, but on other organs, too. It occurs when fluid-filled sacs, also known as cysts, form in the kidneys and disrupt their ability to filter toxins from the bloodstream.

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Vince was now trapped in a waiting game with the disease. It was like a looming cloud of uncertainty hanging over him. It served as a constant reminder of the reality he faced. The diagnosis was enough to make anyone feel down.

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The Diagnosis Was Like A Dark Cloud

In a candid interview with Starbucks Stories & News, Vince opened up about his initial reaction to the devastating news of his polycystic kidney disease diagnosis. He recalled feeling like he was staring death in the face. He was resigned to the fact that his days were numbered. 

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He described the feeling of helplessness that comes with such a diagnosis. He compared it to a dark cloud that constantly loomed overhead. Vince, who had already faced life-threatening situations during his time in the military, knew this was a particularly difficult pill to swallow.

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Vince's Telltale Symptoms

Vince could still go to work and go about his normal activities. However, long before going for diagnostics, he could tell that something was off. 

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At the office, he started visiting the restroom more often. Workouts and light aerobics that had become standard practices became a bit more difficult. Despite having hunches about the likely cause of all his symptoms, Vince nonetheless went for a comprehensive examination to understand the specifics of his condition. 

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A Kidney Transplant Was Necessary

Vince had been living with the disease for a few years, but his condition was deteriorating rapidly. In 2016, he had to rely on a dialysis machine to filter his blood, which is a treatment that can be exhausting and time-consuming. However, it was only a few days before his conversation with Nicole in 2018 that he received some new and unsettling information about his health.

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Nicole’s heart sank when she heard the news from Vince’s doctors. They had informed him that he urgently needed a kidney transplant–it was a matter of life and death. She couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness that also now loomed over her. She immediately told her husband, Justin, about Vince’s problem.

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Justin’s Selfless Offering

Nicole recounted the moment when her husband, Justin, came up with an altruistic plan that would change Vince’s life. As she was telling him about her heart-to-heart conversation with Vince, Justin immediately offered his kidney to him without a second thought.

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Nicole was amazed by Justin’s offer to donate his kidney to Vince. She recalled how Justin’s selflessness was evident not only in his willingness to serve the country as an Army veteran but also in his everyday actions.

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No One Behind Enemy Lines

Vince was no longer in active military service but the spontaneous comradeship between him and Justin remained strong as if they were still at the front line. 

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It is the core value of military personnel to ensure no comrade is left behind enemy lines. In this case, the enemy was the kidney disease, and Justin opted to rescue his comrade from the warzone at the risk of his own life. 

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Becoming Fast Friends

Justin and Vince immediately became friends. They initially hung out together with Nicole. After this, they started to spend more time together on their own. However, they still had to go to a laboratory to check if they were a definite match. 

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According to Nicole, Vince began to come over for family parties during holidays. Eventually, the two veterans decided to spend more time together. Everyone was expecting their friendship to bloom. However, the more critical issue was how they could help prolong Vince’s life.

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Welcoming Vince To The Family

As time went on, Nicole and Justin started to welcome Vince as part of their family. The loving couple, as well as their three children, liked Vince very much. Though Vince was already aware of Justin’s generous offer, he still couldn’t help but have a few doubts.

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He was extremely grateful for Nicole and Justin’s kindness. It was more than their generous offer–Vince also valued the friendship they were giving him. But it was now critical for both men to be medically tested. The process would take more time than they expected.

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Going Through A Ton Of Tests

Before having a transplant, the kidney donor and the patient go through numerous medical exams to ensure that they are compatible. According to the Alina Health website, the process starts with a blood test. Doing so ensures that the kidney to be placed in the patient would not be rejected by their body. 

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The test will also identify the donor’s blood and determine if it matches the blood of the recipient. If there is compatibility, two additional blood tests will be performed for cross-matching and tissue typing.

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It Took An Entire Year

The anticipation was causing everyone to pray more than ever before. All crossed their fingers, hoping the test results would show that both men were compatible. Would Justin be able to give his kidney to his fellow veteran?

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Unfortunately, everyone had to be patient. The testing would take twelve months to complete. An entire year was spent by everyone waiting in bated breath for the results to come out. When the results were finally released, all were in disbelief.

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100% Compatible!

The most awaited test results of their lives were finally available. It confirmed that both veterans, Justin and Vince, were a 100% match! Their families quickly sprung into action. They didn’t want to waste time, so they scheduled a specific date for the critical procedure. The date decided on was December 26th, after Justin’s 36th birthday. 

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Justin revealed that he had no qualms about donating his kidney. He only wanted to do it so he could help Vince immediately. After all, since he has two kidneys, he could give away the other. The fact that it was a life-or-death situation made him think it was the best and only thing he could do. 

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Achievement Unlocked

Come December 26th, the two ex-military men were wheeled into the operating room. Nicole prayed intently for the procedure to be successful when the surgeon arrived to talk to her. What he revealed caused Nicole to feel eternally grateful.

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According to the surgeon, the kidney transplant was an enormous success, and her husband, Justin, and Vince were currently in recovery. Vince was essentially given a new lease on life. He could now count on having an additional two decades of living the best life he wanted. 

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