Jim Sullivan '77 and Erin Dwyer '77

A Perfect Match


jim and erin smiling

At first, it seemed like Keenan Hall roommates Jim Sullivan ’77 and Erin Dwyer ’77 might not get along. Sullivan was from Virginia, while Dwyer hailed from Dallas, Texas. Sullivan was outgoing, talkative, an extrovert, while Dwyer seemed more reserved. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum and debated the Vietnam War as first-year students, once even sparring with each other in front of the entire dorm. Sullivan was a heavy smoker — Dwyer, on the other hand, “was very anti-smoking.”

“Our first year was spent arguing with each other, which we did constantly,” Dwyer recalls.

Yet by the end of that year, their good-natured banter and acceptance of each other’s viewpoints transformed into what would become a storied friendship over their next four years at Notre Dame. Little did they know that almost 50 years later, their friendship would become even deeper. In the fall of 2023, Sullivan donated a kidney to Dwyer — a true testament to their friendship and loyalty.

But before that, Sullivan and Dwyer were just two kids sharing a dorm room. After their first year of encountering each other’s differences, the two went on to share a quad in Keenan with two other roommates, and worked together to help start the first Keenan Revue their senior year — which continues to be one of the most popular traditions on campus. They knew each other’s families, and frequently road-tripped together to another roommate’s Indiana hometown. They rode the highs and lows of college life together, from mourning the loss of their friend, Jim Gallagher, who was killed in an automobile accident in South Bend while they were students, to reveling in the excitement of setting each other up on dates. 

Erin and Jim pose at graduation in front of the JACC holding their degrees
Jim (left) and Erin at their Notre Dame graduation in 1977.

When it came time for graduation, the two kept in touch. What transpired from there is a familiar story of Notre Dame friendships. Sullivan and Dwyer asked each other to be in their weddings. Sullivan visited Dwyer in Dallas and Lake Tahoe and Dwyer would visit Sullivan in his various home cities over the years, from Chicago to Cincinnati. And, certainly, the pair and their wives often met up in South Bend for Notre Dame football games.

“I always enjoyed Erin’s company, and that never changed after graduation. I always look forward to getting together, even if it was a dinner here or visiting town … we made it a point to let each other know if we were going to be close,” Sullivan says.

It was a social media post that clued Sullivan in to Dwyer’s health situation.

“I saw a Facebook post from his daughter in the summer of 2021, I think, saying that Erin had suffered renal failure and was [in] the market for a kidney donation. And that surprised me. And when we got back in touch and I got the scoop … that’s how I knew there was medical trouble in his life,” Sullivan recalls.

Both Dwyer’s sister and daughter had posted on Facebook knowing that, to find a donor, it takes reaching out to multiple people. Many family members and friends came forward, but the path to becoming a qualified donor proved challenging. Some made it past the first two stages, but then were deemed disqualified. In the end, more than 20 people in a two-year span tried to match, to no avail. In the fall of 2021, Dwyer and his wife, Wanda, visited Sullivan and his wife, Lauri, at their home in Saugatuck, Michigan. It was during that conversation that Sullivan learned more details about Dwyer’s health, and found himself wanting to help.

“So Lauri and I decided, well, we’ll throw our hat in the ring and see, you know, if either of us were a match. Lauri wasn’t. But I kept going and through that fall did some initial screening and I was making it through,” Sullivan said.

To become a qualified kidney donor, the in-depth evaluation involves an application and screening that can take on average up to three months. The donor must have a compatible blood type, be in good health and psychological condition, and have normal kidney function. Other requirements, like certain BMI measurements, blood pressure, antibodies, and lack of heart disease or diabetes, are also taken into consideration.

Sullivan set out to complete the full evaluation but paused for a while around the holidays, planning to take up the rest of the testing in January 2022. Sullivan’s plans were tragically altered when his youngest child, Danny, passed away at the age of 27 on January 27, 2022. A lifelong swimmer and college athlete at Hope College in Michigan, he suffered a sudden cardiopulmonary attack while working out at a local pool.

Jim hugs his son Danny posing together in Notre Dame Stadium
Jim posing with his late son, Danny, at a Notre Dame football game in the early 2000s.

“That was just a tremendous shock … It took me a month or two just to get my head back on straight and think about this pending help I could give Erin … It really was a subject of a lot of prayer. Was the family ready for us to go forward with anything?” Sullivan said.

After a lot of reflection, Sullivan gained the support from his daughters and wife, who were worried but understood the situation Dwyer was in. Sullivan flew to Tampa and got officially qualified as a viable donor at the hospital where Dwyer had been treated.

The surgery was set for May 2022, but the week prior to the surgery, another obstacle presented itself: Dwyer had developed a severe infection during his initial peritoneal dialysis, and doctors had trouble “knocking it out.” After rounds of antibiotics and different attempts at treatment, Dwyer finally ended up having surgery to remove the bacteria. Dwyer battled the infection for eight months, pushing the surgery date out for another year. Meanwhile, Sullivan worked to become his healthiest self. He lost weight, gave up alcohol, and made adjustments to his own medications. Sullivan is grateful to the National Kidney Foundation for putting him in touch with a mentor who had the exact procedure at Sullivan's age a few years prior. But in March 2023, his kidney was deemed ineligible by Tampa General. A measurement error had taken in one of the three echocardiograms Sullivan took between April 2022 and April 2023.

Sullivan persisted, this time getting tested in Michigan where he lived. Finally, at 68 years old, Sullivan successfully had his kidney removed on Aug. 2, 2023. It was flown down to Tampa and inserted into Dwyer that same day. By midnight, Dwyer had a healthy kidney, and Sullivan recovered smoothly.

In the end, everything worked out.

“May I say it’s a credit to Jim. Like I said, my contribution to this whole thing was just getting sick, so I didn’t do anything. The credit all goes to him for persevering. I didn’t have a choice. I was sick, and you know, hoping somebody can give me a kidney,” Dwyer said.

“Let’s not start the canonization too early,” Sullivan quipped.

Erin poses in the bed after his surgery
Erin at Tampa General after his successful surgery, August 2023.

Sullivan’s faith played a huge part in the process, reminding him of his Notre Dame experience and the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his view, Dwyer was just like the man on the side of the road in desperate need of help. Sullivan credits his Notre Dame education for making him more cognizant of the struggles others are going through, and encourages current students to seek out ways to be of service to others.

“What’s happening to you at Notre Dame goes by so quickly and you’re so busy and overwhelmed with new things, that you might let the meaning slip by just in the busy-ness of it … It’s a very unusual and grace-filled experience to go through four years at Notre Dame and carry it forward with you because the message is basically: ‘Get over yourself, help other people,’” Sullivan said.

The two look back fondly on their Notre Dame experience, grateful that the place brought them together, and especially Keenan Hall. They enjoy reminiscing on their times starting a hot dog stand, Dwyer’s time as an R.A., the Keenan Revue, and even a King Kong sculpture they made out of snow outside of the hall on North Quad. Though the two went on to have successful careers — Dwyer as a lawyer and Sullivan in business and higher education — it’s the friendships and experiences outside of the classroom that the two remember most about Notre Dame.

“I can’t even remember all the courses I took, and I certainly don’t remember a lot of the things I learned there. But I remember those experiences I had with my roommates and things we did together, “ Dwyer said.

For more resources for those interested in learning more about how to become a kidney donor and impact a family's life and well-being, visit the National Kidney Foundation .