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When Chris Dempsey decided to donate part of his liver to save Heather Krueger's life, the two of them were total strangers.
Less than a year later, they are now planning to spend the rest of their lives together.
On Dec. 10, Dempsey, 37, proposed to Krueger, 26, during a trip to Chicago after a romance that began with his selfless decision brought the two together.
"When I sit back and think about it, it's just, 'Wow, one thing changed the course of two people's lives,'' Dempsey told TODAY.com.
"I realized how kind of a person, how special, how selfless and different he is,'' Krueger told TODAY.com. "He's like no one else I've met before. He was there for me emotionally and physically, and at that point I realized this is more than just this special bond (over an organ donation)."
It all started when Dempsey, a former Marine who works in code enforcement and the water department for the village of Frankfort, Illinois, overheard a conversation in the break room at work. Krueger's cousin, Jack Dwyer, was talking about how she badly needed a liver transplant or she could die. Dempsey didn't know her at all but decided he wanted to help.
"When I heard about her situation, I just put myself in that situation, thinking if this was one of my family members or me, I would want somebody to help me out,'' Dempsey said. "My mom was kind of nervous at first for me. Some people didn't understand why I would do this for a stranger, but as time went on, people changed their tune and thought it was a cool thing I was doing."
Krueger had been diagnosed with stage 4 liver disease in March 2014, and in June of that year she went into liver failure. Doctors told her at the time that she had a less than 50 percent chance of living another two months. They also suggested that she try to find a living donor because she might not live long enough to get a liver from the state's transplant list.
"When I heard about Chris, I didn't want to get too excited or anything, because I had people in the past who went in to see if they were a match, but the qualifications are very strict, so most people were disqualified right away,'' she said.
In January 2015, she saw Dempsey's number pop up on her phone out of the blue.
"I found out I was a match, so I called her up and told her, 'I'm going to be your donor; let's do this,''' Dempsey said. "She was just ecstatic."
"I got off the phone and ran down the hallway, and my mother and I were both crying our eyes out in disbelief,'' Krueger said. "I had never even met this man before."
The two met in person over lunch a week later, and they later spent time together getting the word out for a fundraiser by his motorcycle club to help defray her medical expenses. Their families also hit it off during a dinner together.
"Once we started hanging out more and more before the surgery, I started thinking she's a great girl, and it progressed from there,'' Dempsey said.
On March 16, 2015, Krueger's entire liver was removed and 55 percent of Dempsey's liver was transplanted into her by doctors at the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago. Both of their livers have since regenerated, and other than some initial complications and regularly taking anti-rejection medicine, they are perfectly healthy.
In the aftermath of the surgery, their relationship deepened as they realized it was more than just a bond over the liver donation.
"He had told me at the beginning of everything, 'You owe me absolutely nothing for this. We can go our separate ways if that's what you want,''' Krueger said. "It was kind of like, we do have this special bond, but is this just because I'm sick that I'm feeling this way? You had to kind of separate that, but after the surgery, I realized it went beyond that."
On Dec. 10, Dempsey took her for lunch on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, followed by some Christmas shopping, a horse-and-carriage ride, and then an engagement proposal in front of the historic Drake Hotel. Krueger ecstatically accepted.
A simple overheard conversation at work has now led to a wedding the couple is planning for October.
"I think about all the what-ifs, like the fact that he normally didn't go into that break room for lunch, or that my cousin is a seasonal worker who happened to be in there that day, or whether someone else would have come forward, and would it have been in time?" Krueger said. "I had an angel watching over me."
Krueger was a nursing assistant before she got sick and now is hoping to go back to school. She also hopes that the couple's story can bring attention to a worthy cause.
"I think first of all that it shows everyone, when all you hear is negativity, that there really are sincerely true, kind people out there,'' she said. "I also hope it creates more awareness of organ donation. Obviously I didn't know anything about it or think about it until I was put in this position, but people should educate themselves about it."
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