You wouldn't blame Daru Smith and Sarah McPharlin for keeping their distance from each other while at the University of Chicago Medical Center. They were both on the same waitlist for a rare triple-organ transplant.
Daru, a truck driver from the South Side of Chicago, was just a few doors down from McPharlin, an occupational therapist from Michigan. They had different backgrounds but shared the same grim odds. Both needed a procedure so rare it had only been done 15 times in U.S. history.
"I was like, I don't want to feel like it's a competition thing, like who's going to live and who's going to die," Daru said.
Daru has an inflammatory condition that caused organ failure. When Sarah was a child, a virus attacked her heart, and she got a heart transplant at 12, but recently her health deteriorated. Both needed heart-liver-kidney transplants, but no hospital had ever done two in a single year.
Doctors don't introduce patients on the same waitlist even if they have different blood types, like Sarah and Daru, but they met at physical therapy, and a friendship began, the two inspiring each other to work through their exercises.
Then, days before Christmas, Daru had a donor - a new chance at life and a chance to see his 3-year-old grow up.
"To be honest, I had felt a little bad at first … she had been through so much too. You know, like, why didn't she go first?" Daru said.
Then the transplant team got news during Daru's surgery that they could only describe as a Christmas miracle: Sarah got a match too. It was the first time a hospital had ever done two of that particular surgery in the same year, much less the same day.
The person who gave her news of the donor was Dr. Bryan Smith, the fiance of CBS News correspondent Adriana Diaz. Smith asked Sarah if she'd heard the great news and she thought he was referring to Daru's surgery.
"We kept talking for a minute or so, and I realized she had no idea," Smith said. "I stopped her, and I said, 'Actually, the donor's for you,' and she and her mother were speechless."
Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam is the pair's heart surgeon. All told, Daru's surgery took 17 hours and Sarah's 20 hours – almost back-to-back.
"It's one of those things about transplant, which is actually spiritual … you control some things, but when donors occur, you have no control over it all … and maybe there is karma in that they're rewarded for their good deeds," Jeevanandam said.
Good deeds like being open to friendship where others wouldn't and paying it forward.
"Usually I don't do the 'new year, new me' stuff, but I can honestly say this year, new year, new me," Daru said.
Daru wants to become a motivational speaker and is looking forward to raising his son. As for Sarah, she wants to live her life to the fullest to honor her donor. Daru is still rehabbing in the hospital, and Sarah actually got discharged Monday, so she's off to living that new life.
Their friendship has brought their families together, and they're all planning to have a joint family dinner as soon as they can.