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Two friends become "transplant brothers"

Fred Nelis and Gordon Veldman received organ transplants from the same donor.

Joe Clark

It's always surprising to run into a friend at the supermarket or some other unexpected location -- so imagine the shock two longtime friends in Michigan felt when they encountered each other at the hospital after both undergoing transplant surgery.

Fred Nelis and Gordon Veldman are now telling the story of the special bond they discovered when they emerged from surgeries at Spectrum Health's Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant Program in Grand Rapids, Michigan last June. Nelis, 60 years old, received a new heart and Veldman, who's 67, got new lungs. But it was more than just a coincidence they were there at the same time -- the two men found out they had become "transplant brothers" since both received organs from the same 32-year-old donor.

The hospital waited to release their story until both patients had their six-month check-ups and the two men are doing just fine.

Nelis was diagnosed 20 years ago with a progressive heart disease know as idiopathic cardiomyopathy. As he become more ill he developed atrial fibrillation. Veldman had emphysema and chronic pulmonary disease for years and doctors eventually diagnosed him with Alpha-1, a genetic disease that slowly destroys the lungs.

The two met about 10 years ago; Veldman was a good friend of Nelis's brother-in-law.

While both men were undergoing surgery, their families sat and began chatting in the waiting room. They quickly realized they shared a connection.

"As the night wore on and [the surgeons] were doing their magic with us, everyone was doing their banter back and forth," Nelis told CBS News.

When both men emerged from their post-operative sleep they had the opportunity to talk to each other. "I told him this is quite a surprise that I know somebody who had a transplant, and that you were transplanted on the same night as me and that we had the same donor," said Nelis.

The two friends wanted to share their story with the public to reinforce the importance of organ donation.

Two moths after surgery Nelis, who lives in Holland, Michigan, drove 80 miles to visit his transplant brother at his home in Pentwater.

"Gord has instituted a ritual when we see each other. We embrace in a fashion that would put the two organs in close proximity as a tribute to our donor," said Nelis. "To have the good fortune of someone I knew to share the experience with... that doesn't happen very often."

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