“She’s an angel. You married an angel.”
Those were among the first words Jeff Pearlman heard from an attending nurse who reassured him that his wife, Catherine, was recovering well following surgery—a surgery to remove one of her kidneys and donate it to a complete stranger.
Rewind just a few months, and Catherine was standing inside a Starbucks. As she waited to put milk and sugar in her coffee, she noticed a flier. The sign on the bulletin board featured a picture of a man and a message from his wife. It read, “My honey of 27 years needs a living kidney donation as soon as possible.”
Instantly moved by the woman’s plea, Catherine remembers thinking, “You could tell that he was loved. This was a person who mattered to somebody else. And if I could help him, then that’s what I should do.”
The man featured on the flyer was Eli Valdez. After being diagnosed with kidney disease at age 40 and undergoing years of nightmarish dialysis, Eli was quickly headed toward complete kidney failure.
I'm a #kidneydonor Here's the story. For every gift there is an equal and opposite gift presented to the giver. I hope this one act moves others to find a way in their own lives, in whatever way makes sense, to perform their own acts of kindness. https://t.co/pP8yVWNsqj pic.twitter.com/AZoiqN0TC7— Catherine Pearlman (@thefamilycoach) May 30, 2019
Earlier this year, determined to take action, Eli’s wife Monica started a social media campaign in hopes of identifying someone who would be a match with Eli’s O+ blood type. She eventually took her efforts to the ground, driving to every Starbucks she could to post fliers. “It just feels like your other limb when you’re with somebody that long,” said Monica.
You can imagine the overwhelming sense of relief Eli and Monica felt when they heard from Catherine this past January. Tests determined that Catherine was an exact match for Eli, and after discussing the idea with her husband, Catherine was determined to give these complete strangers the happy ending she knew they deserved.
Despite trading emails for several months, it wasn’t until May 16, the day of their surgeries, that Catherine actually met Eli and Monica. As she waited quietly in the registration area of the hospital early that morning, Catherine whispered to her husband Jeff, “I think that’s Eli and his wife. Should I say something to them?”
In a heartwarming and emotional post about his wife’s selfless decision, Jeff recounts what happened next: “Moments later, Catherine approached. They stood, and suddenly this emotional cape cloaked us. There were no hugs, and no tears, but the wife and I both felt like crying. This man—sick for so long—would be receiving a kidney that should change his life. A kidney from my wife. We know almost nothing about him. Name—Eli. Job? Don’t know. Hobbies? Don’t know. Trump supporter? Obama lover? Apolitical? Don’t know. Jets fan? Amateur magician? Pearl Jam diehard? Don’t know. We know, legitimately, one thing—he needed help. My wife decided to deliver it.”
During their hours-long wait in the hospital, as their spouses were both in surgery, Jeff and Monica helped curb their nerves by getting to know each other. Monica reflected that she and Eli had been high school sweethearts, and Jeff lovingly shared other stories exemplifying Catherine’s kind and giving nature, including her time spent running a youth homeless shelter in New York City.
At one point during their conversation, Eli’s parents—also in the waiting room—approached Jeff. “His father only speaks broken English, but he extended his right arm in my direction and said, haltingly, ‘I need to shake your hand.’ Eli’s twin brother started talking to me and had to walk away. It was just too much. ‘He and Eli are best friends,’ Monica explained.”
When doctors eventually approached to let family members know that both procedures had gone well, and Catherine’s kidney was successfully functioning in Eli, Jeff calls it the “greatest moment” of his life.
Months later, the two couples reunited to catch up and reflect on how a chance visit to a coffee shop could end up saving a complete stranger’s life.
“What words can you say? Thank you is not enough,” Monica said, holding back tears. “Thank you is never going to be enough.”
See more of Catherine’s inspiring and selfless mission to give Eli and Monica their happy ending in this TODAY segment. To learn more about kidney disease, including living donations, visit the American Kidney Fund.