When Mylaen Merthe of Ocala, Florida, needed a kidney transplant, she hoped her brother would be a match. When it turned out he wasn't, she posted a plea on Facebook, asking friends and family to consider live organ donation. Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe stepped up, and many people were surprised. After all, Neal-Strickland is Merthe's ex-husband's wife.
"She stepped up and got tested," Merthe, 59, told TODAY. "They called her back within hours."
Neal-Strickland Merthe, 56, would marry Merthe's ex-husband, Jim Merthe, just days before the transplant surgery took place in November 2020.
"They've been together for 15 years or so, I've known her," said Merthe, explaining that the two women weren't especially close but she was on good terms with her ex-husband, whom she shares two adult children with. "Now we're really close," she said of her relationship with her ex's new bride.
Merthe said she's had high blood pressure for the past 30 years, beginning with the pregnancy of her first child when she had preeclampsia. "High blood pressure attacks the kidneys," she said. "I had a second child, but it was risky. I was told no more kids. I lived through 30 years with this, I was on three different kinds of medicine."
Her numbers dropping, Merthe was told that if she didn't get a transplant, her future would include dialysis, a treatment that performs the function of the kidneys. "I would have been on dialysis and no one wants to do that," she said. "It interferes with your life. Every other day you're on a machine for four hours. That's not a life."
Merthe's daughter was a match offered to donate a kidney to her but there was one problem -- she was pregnant, which meant her mom would need to wait nine months. Just a week away from going on dialysis, and having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal-Strickland came to her rescue.
For Neal-Strickland Merthe, organ donation is an important cause for a tragic reason. According to the Associated Press, her brother died of cystic fibrosis while waiting on a double lung transplant 26 years ago. She wanted to donate one of her lungs at the time, but they weren’t a match and he needed two.
“When somebody needs an organ, if they don’t get it, they’re probably not going to make it. I know it’s something that you do quickly,” she said.
While Merthe is indebted to Neal-Strickland, she also feels that everything happened at the right time and that it was meant to be this way.
As for the unique situation of receiving an organ from the woman now married to her ex-husband, Merthe said it's a non-issue. "I never had anything against my ex," she said. "We were divorced over 20 years ago, we had kids together. That's just life. Life's too short to hate on people. You get over it."
Now, because of Neal-Strickland Merthe's generosity, Merthe can enjoy playing with her two new grandchildren. Born just five months apart, both her daughter and her son have grown their families. So for now life is filled with baby love.
"I wouldn’t have had a life or been able to enjoy my grandkids," she said regarding what Neal-Strickland's amazing action did for her. "We want people to know you do not have to be blood related to donate an organ. She’s not in any way related to me. It could be someone walking off the street."
According to UNOS, an organ donation non-profit, a living donor can be anyone in good health who is over 18 years of age and who is cleared by their doctor. In 2020, over 5,700 people became living transplant donors. However, there are currently over 100,000 people on a waiting list to receive a life-saving organ transplant.
Merthe has a message for anyone considering organ donation. "Do not be afraid," she said. "Step up and start the process."
She said that the procedure is not as bad as people might think and can often be done laparoscopically. "You only need one kidney to live," she said. "Debby has one and now I have one."
"It’s made us become very close. We’re connected. We call each other 'kidney sisters.' She doesn’t have a sister and I don’t have a sister, so now we're sisters."