"I felt like Jim was my destiny until I found out about Mylaen needing my kidney. Then I felt like she's my destiny too," says Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe

By Joelle Goldstein
July 15, 2021 12:00 PM
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It was Nov. 22, 2020, the 10-year anniversary of Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe and Jim Merthe's first date — and despite COVID-19 restrictions, the couple was determined to get married that day.

They'd postponed the festivities four times over the years, in favor of celebrating Jim's children's weddings along the way — and now every detail had been planned, down to the blue bridal bouquet Debby's aunt had made for her.

"I didn't want any frills; I wanted to keep it simple and it was perfect," she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

Two days after exchanging vows with Jim, 57, in front of a small group of 50 loved ones at the Salt Life Church in Salt Springs, Florida, Debby, 56, checked herself into Tampa General Hospital and prepared to donate her kidney to Jim's ex-wife, Mylaen Anderson-Merthe.

Over the years, Debby had always been friendly with Mylaen, who'd been suffering from kidney disease for three decades. So when it became clear that none of the 60-year-old grandmother's family members was a match, Debby decided to step up.

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Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe (left) with Jim Merthe and Mylaen Merthe
| Credit: John Raoux/Shutterstock

"I said, 'Mylaen's going to be an awesome grandmother, and this has to be done,'" says Debby. "I knew she was worth it, and I knew we had to make it work."

The procedure was ultimately successful, giving way to Mylaen's clean bill of health — and 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."

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Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe and Mylaen Merthe in the hospital post-transplant

The twist of fate was something Jim and Mylaen never would've imagined when they wed in 1991. During Mylaen's first pregnancy with their son Jimmy Jr., now 32, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, which resulted in high blood pressure that later led to kidney disease.

During their 17-year marriage, Mylaen and Jim — who met working at a Daytona Beach, Fla., car dealership and later opened the Belleview Auto Salvage junkyard together — also welcomed daughter Sami, now 30, before Jim's struggles with alcoholism finally caused the couple to divorce in 2008.

"I wasn't abusive, but I was a very functional, bad alcoholic," admits Jim. "She just couldn't take it."

"In the beginning, it was hard to get along, but being there for our children was the most important thing," adds Mylaen, whose kidney disease worsened over time, before taking a serious turn in the past two years. "I was very scared. In the last year and a half, everything started going downhill really fast. I knew my time was limited."

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Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe and Jim Merthe at their wedding
| Credit: Courtesy James Merthe

Meanwhile, Debby's 17-year marriage (her second) had also ended in divorce, following her husband's struggles with substance abuse. (He died in 2018.) She'd been a single mother of two for seven years and towing cars for a living when she met Jim through his auto-salvage business.

Though they shared an instant connection, Debby says she refused to date Jim until he'd stopped drinking.

"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 explains. "I saw so much in Jim to let him be covered up with alcoholism. He had a lot to offer."

With her support, Jim has now been sober for more than 10 years. "She saved my life too," Jim says. "I don't know if I'd still be here if I hadn't quit drinking."

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."

Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe and Mylaen Merthe
Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe (right) and Mylaen Merthe
| Credit: Jim Merthe

So it was no surprise when Debby (whose brother died of cystic fibrosis in 1995, after he was unable to get a double-lung transplant) offered to donate her kidney to Mylaen when she heard about her plight in May 2019.

"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."

"I always said if I could ever do anything about somebody that needed an organ, I was going to do it," says Debby. "It all made sense. I felt like Jim was my destiny until I found out about Mylaen needing my kidney. Then I felt like she's my destiny too."

By the time Debby had undergone months of testing to confirm she was a match, Mylaen's kidneys were functioning at a perilously low 8 percent.

"She was totally pale, her eyes were dark," recalls Jim. "She was really sick, and the doctor said she would have gone on dialysis anytime if she didn't get a kidney quick. But somehow it just all worked out."

For more on Debby and Mylaen's kidney transplant, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

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.

Staffers later allowed the women to see one another in Mylaen's hospital room, where they shared an emotional moment of joy and relief.

"We were laughing so hard, our incisions hurt," says Mylaen.

Adds Debby: "As soon as Jim and I saw her, I was like, 'She looks totally different.' The doctor said it was a miracle."

Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe and Mylaen Merthe
Debby Neal-Strickland Merthe (right) and Mylaen Merthe
| Credit: Jim Merthe

Following the transplant, Debby and Mylaen decided to mark their special bond as "Kidney Sisters" with matching key chain tags. 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." 

Those interested in becoming a living organ donor can learn more information here.