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Julia & Joanie: A Life-Changing Connection

The gift of a living kidney brought joy in the giving and receiving

By Pam Moore

Photography by Kim Fetrow ’96 at Kim Fetrow Photography

Friends Julia Ireland and Joanie Lucarelli holding hands and laughing.

“The fatigue was indescribable. I was so tired I couldn’t even locate myself in space …”

It was the fall of 2022, and Julia Ireland ’90, an internationally recognized Professor of German Studies and Philosophy, barely recognized herself.

Diagnosed with chronic kidney disease despite being otherwise healthy, she was fighting for her life—and running out of options.

A natural leader, Ireland’s declining health had forced her to step down as President of the Heidegger Association and Chairman of the Walla Walla Public Library Board. Robbed of the energy to write, publish or even have dinner with friends, “My life contracted to where all I could do was teach and walk my dog,” she says.

Facing a five-year wait for a cadaver kidney, Ireland began planning a medical leave to start kidney dialysis. While she braced herself for a life that looked nothing like the rich, vibrant one she’d spent decades building, a colleague across campus couldn’t shake the feeling she was meant to help. 

A Call to Action

Although Ireland had known and liked Joanie Lucarelli, the Executive Assistant to the President, for more than 10 years, the two were not close friends. So when they crossed paths on campus in August 2022 and Ireland revealed she was in dire need of a kidney transplant, they were both surprised by what happened next.


They remember hugging before parting ways—and the thoughts that popped into their minds at that moment. “I felt this tingling sensation and a connection with Julia,” says Lucarelli. At the same time, Ireland thought, “Could Joanie be my donor?”

As Lucarelli found herself pondering the remote possibility, she started with a doctor’s visit, wanting to make sure her own health was good. After that, she mentioned the idea to her husband, expecting him to respond with protective concern. “But he said, ‘You absolutely should do this.’ He was rock solid from day one,” says Lucarelli. Encouraged by her clean bill of health and husband’s support, she continued to consider the prospect. 

As weeks turned into months, the feeling that she needed to help grew from a gentle whisper to a shout. At the beginning of 2023, Lucarelli made up her mind when her deceased father appeared in a dream. “He repeated his dying words to me: ‘When you have the chance to help someone, you need to do it.’ I knew then in my soul and my bones that I could do this,” she says.

In the meantime, several of Ireland’s close friends and family members had initiated the donor screening process—only to find out they weren’t a match. In January 2023, Ireland was feeling hopeless, having just found out her cousin had failed the donor screening, when Lucarelli called, wanting to know Ireland’s date of birth so that she could begin the donor matching evaluation. Ireland was touched by the gesture and excited about the possibility but tried not to get her hopes up. 

A week later, in February 2023, just as Ireland was about to appeal to the Whitman community for a donor, Lucarelli passed the first donor screening.

“I remember crying and recalling that feeling I’d had about Joanie in August and thinking, ‘Maybe this is it,’” says Ireland.

The Waiting Game

To determine whether she was a match, Lucarelli faced a grueling series of physical and psychological evaluations.

The donor screening process, which stretched out over four months and included multiple trips to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, was a race against the clock as Ireland’s already tenuous health plummeted. “It was absolutely debilitating,” says Ireland.

While her life literally depended on Lucarelli passing each round of testing, she was tasked with letting go and being patient. “My regular Walla Walla doctor said, ‘You just have to let it happen.’ I wanted to clobber him, but it was true—relinquishing control released the stress,” Ireland says. 

In June 2023, just as Ireland was feeling particularly down about her most recent lab results, Lucarelli got the call from the UW Medical Center. She was a match. The two met on Ankeny Field to revel in the news. “It was a very special time,” says Lucarelli.


With the transplant date set for July 2023, Ireland and Lucarelli marveled at their shared sense that from the very beginning, it was going to work out.

“Everything about it felt spiritually guided,” says Ireland. From the sudden, powerful connection they experienced when Ireland revealed her desperate need for a kidney to the transplant surgery nearly a year later, and all the synchronicities along the way, they had no other explanation.

It turned out, they matched as well as if they were close family members. More than just a positive sign, their strong biological alignment drastically decreases Ireland’s need for lifelong immunosuppressant drugs—which will have tremendously positive effects on the transplant’s success and Ireland’s overall long-term health.

The Gift of Joy

Julia & Joanie smiling next to each other.

Pretransplant meet-up! Before heading to Seattle for their procedures, Joanie (left) and Julia got together in Walla Walla. Julia met Joanie’s mother, who Julia now refers to as her mom too.

Before surgery, Ireland and Lucarelli named their “kidney baby” Joy, a moniker that immediately felt right to both. Their instinct was spot on. Since the successful transplant, which took place on July 19, 2023, the organ, weighing in at no more than half a pound, has brought tons of joy, not just to Ireland but to Lucarelli too.

For Ireland, who resumed teaching five weeks after surgery, “everything, including teaching, research, even ‘crappy’ writing days feel so fun” since the transplant. Meanwhile, she’s received multiple career opportunities, including invitations to give keynote addresses at international conferences, since receiving Joy.

Meanwhile, Lucarelli has been overwhelmed by what she’s gained since losing a kidney. “We were wrapped in love and support from friends, family, the Whitman community and the transplant team at UW Medical Center,” she says.

But the most meaningful reward was the opportunity to give Ireland the chance to continue using her talents to engage her students, serve as a leader in her community, and to share conversations both light and meaningful with her circle of friends and family. “It was a privilege to give Julia the energy to use her gifts for teaching and bringing out the best in people,” Lucarelli says.

Living in Community

Both Ireland and Lucarelli are adamant that the Whitman community was foundational to their transplant journey. The kindness and generosity they received from the administration, staff, faculty and students far exceeded their expectations.

As a workplace, Whitman offered all the schedule flexibility both women needed to travel to Seattle for multiple pretransplant appointments and to return to work gradually after the procedure. And back on campus, Lucarelli’s colleagues generously covered her leave.

But perhaps more importantly, the Whitman community offered tremendous emotional support when they needed it most. From the very beginning, Dean of Students and double transplant recipient Kazi Joshua took on the role of mentor to Ireland. He was the one who encouraged her to write a letter appealing to the Whitman community for a kidney donor.

While Ireland was reluctant to be so vulnerable, her confidence was bolstered by small but meaningful acts of kindness from various people—from her students who created original artwork to include in her appeal letter to the many colleagues who were moved by that letter to begin the donor screening process.

After the transplant, it was a former Whitman student, Flora Sheppard ’16, who served as Ireland’s caregiver when she returned home. And throughout the entire process, Whitties never stopped calling, texting and sending CaringBridge messages to express their support. 

Miracle Making

Ireland isn’t out of the woods yet.

“I still have to decide carefully what responsibilities to take on because rejection is most likely to happen around the six-month mark,” she says.

Even under ideal circumstances, she’ll never return to her old life. 

Julia Ireland and Joanie Lucarelli seated and smiling.

Joanie (left) and Julia together at Whitman in March 2024.

“According to my nephrologist, my new life has to be about taking care of my new kidney, especially during the first year,” she says. That means research projects and leadership roles can’t interfere with the stress management, healthy eating and exercise that are crucial to her long-term health.

While Ireland is thrilled to step back into academia, her transplant has given her a deeper understanding of the texts she teaches, particularly in her seminar on German philosopher Hannah Arendt.

“According to Arendt, miracles don’t come out of the plane of the normal sense of causality and human calculation, but out of a radically different place,” says Ireland. “I think ethics, healing, freedom, reconciliation and nonviolence come from that place.”

In service of those values, Ireland and Lucarelli hope to help improve outcomes for the thousands of people still waiting for a kidney. When Ireland’s doctor told her that the greatest predictor of long-term success for transplant recipients wasn’t physical health but access to healthcare, she and Lucarelli took notice.

“I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and still, navigating the medical system has been challenging for me. Everybody needs a guide,” says Ireland. She and Lucarelli plan to work with the University of Washington to engage in kidney donation advocacy in underrepresented communities in rural Eastern Washington—once Ireland’s doctor gives her the green light to take on additional responsibilities. 

At the same time, they hope their story motivates people to consider joining the national kidney registry. “If you feel the nudge to be a kidney donor, get checked out and see if it’s a possibility,” says Lucarelli. If you’re eligible, kidney donation is a rare opportunity to create what Ireland calls “a secular miracle.” 

Published on May 24, 2024
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