Eric Ogden for Reader's Digest
Holly O’Brien’s patient was just being nice. She probably didn’t realize that South Korea has more than 50 million people or that there are over 1.7 million Korean Americans living in the United States. She just thought it was interesting that O’Brien didn’t know Meagan Hughes, another Korean American nurse working on the same floor—and the same shift—at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. “You should talk to her,” the patient told O’Brien, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Maybe you’re from the same town.”
After O’Brien and Hughes finally met, they did begin to notice parallels in their lives. They were both certified nursing assistants. They were both orphans who had been adopted by American families. And their reasons for ending up at the orphanage were the same: abandonment. “So I said to her, ‘I know this is crazy, but what is your last name in Korean?’” recalls Hughes, now 45. “And as soon as she told me Shin, I said, ‘No way. That’s my [Korean] last name too.’”
Suddenly, the coincidences seemed more than merely interesting. In fact, for years, O’Brien, 47, sensed that she’d had a half sister back in Korea. Though her mother had disappeared when she was an infant and she was only five when her father was killed by a train, she had a memory of her and her father living, briefly, with his second wife and a baby girl. O’Brien was ultimately adopted by a loving family from Alexandria, Virginia, but her Korean childhood never left her. She remembers one night, when she was about nine years old, waking up from a dream and screaming, “My daddy died. I have a sister. We need to find her.” O’Brien’s adoptive family contacted the orphanage in Korea for information, but there was no record of a sibling.
Hughes wasn’t haunted by lingering memories; instead, she was haunted because she didn’t have any. Adopted when she was four by a family in Kingston, New York, she couldn’t remember either of her biological parents. “My whole life has been a question in my mind, and an emptiness,” she says.
Now the coincidence of meeting O’Brien offered the chance to fill in the blanks. A year ago, the nurses decided to take at-home DNA tests and mailed the samples away to be analyzed. Less than two weeks later, O’Brien got an e-mail. Their DNA matched—they were half sisters. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?” says Hughes. O’Brien was shocked but also relieved. “In my heart, I knew,” she says. “I knew she was out there somewhere.” After more than 7,500 miles and four long decades, O’Brien had finally found the missing piece of her past, working just a few feet away from her.
T oday, the sisters wear special necklaces, each with a heart-shaped charm, as a symbol of their bond. “I got her the silver one, and I got the gold one for myself,” says O’Brien. “She will always be my heart.”
Divorced twice and remarried with no children of her own, O’Brien has found the reunion with her younger sister to be especially sweet. In an instant, she has become an aunt to Hughes’s two daughters. As much as she loves the family that raised her in Virginia—O’Brien has eight adoptive brothers and sisters—making a biological connection at this stage of her life has been extraordinary. “I have this very strong belief that God must be—” For a moment, her tears overwhelm her words, as if washing away the sisters’ 40-year separation. “Like, whatever I’ve done, I must have done something good in my life.”