Debby, who had lost her brother to cystic fibrosis in 1995 after he was unable to get a lung transplant, knew she had to reach out and help her husband's ex-wife.
Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe and Jim Merthe first went on a date on November Nov. 22, 2010. Debby, who used to tow cars for a living, first met Jim through his auto-salvage business. According to PEOPLE, there was a spark between them, but the single mother of two refused to date Jim until he'd fixed his drinking issue. "I had already been through an ordeal with an alcoholic who was also a drug addict so I wasn't going to put up with any of that," Debby explained of her second marriage that ended in divorce because he was an addict.
"I saw so much in Jim to let him be covered up with alcoholism. He had a lot to offer." With Debby's support, Jim managed to wean off alcohol and has been sober for about a decade now. So, on their 10th anniversary, Debby and Jim decided to get married.
After having postponed festivities about four times, because they chose to witness Jim's children's weddings along the way, the couple had decided to tie the knot on November 22, 2020, keeping in mind the COVID restrictions at the time. "I didn't want any frills; I wanted to keep it simple and it was perfect," said Debby.
Finally, Jim, 57, and Debby, 56, got married in front of a small group of 50 loved ones at the Salt Life Church in Salt Springs, Florida. Two days later, she checked herself into Tampa General Hospital. No, she wasn't sick, but she was prepping herself to donate one of her kidneys to her husband's ex-wife, Mylaen Anderson-Merthe.
In the years that Debby and Jim were together, she became friends with Mylaen, too, who had been suffering from kidney disease for three decades. During Mylaen's first pregnancy, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, which caused high blood pressure that later led to kidney disease.
Sadly no one was a match for the 60-year-old woman, and so Debby decided to check if she was a match. Turned out, she was. "I knew she was worth it, and I knew we had to make it work," said the selfless woman. It was a no-brainer for Debby, especially after she'd lost her brother to cystic fibrosis in 1995 after he was unable to get a lung transplant.
Eventually, the procedure was scheduled and it was a success. Within hours of the surgery, Mylaen was showing signs of improvement. "I felt like I was alive again. Overnight I felt like a totally new person," she recalled. Finally, Mylaen's clean bill of health gave her the long-awaited chance at a new life.
"If Jim and I were meant to be together, Debby would've never come along, and I wouldn't have had a donor," says Mylaen. "This was all meant to be."
How did Jim feel about Debby's offer to his ex-wife? "I thought it was a little strange," Jim admits. "But I also know if Debby says she's going to do something, she'll do it."
Debby and Mylaen also decided to mark their special bond as "Kidney Sisters" with matching key chain tags following the transplant. Debby's tag says: "Kidney Donor - I shared my spare!" with the date of their transplant while Mylaen's tag says: "Kidney Recipient - I run on spare parts!"
"Neither one of us has sisters and now we're connected forever," says Mylaen, who now works at a car dealership and loves spending time with her son, daughter, and two grandkids. "She's given me all I could have wanted." For Debby, that connection runs deeper than she could have imagined. "Giving her my kidney did more for me than it did for her — if you can believe that," she says.
"I knew that we were both going to go into the hospital and she was going to come home with one of my kidneys. And now we're both going to live happily ever after, raising our grandkids."
Today, Jim and Debby have four kids and seven grandkids between them and are also foster parents to six children (three of whom are Debby's biological grandchildren). They also continue to stay close to Mylaen and Jim's extended family. "We do it for the children," says Debby. "And I've always had a respect for Mylaen. There's a lot of love there."
Cover Image Source (Representative): Getty Images | Oliver Rossi