Transplant patient can’t make graduation – so the ceremony comes to him

CHICAGO, Ill. - It’s graduation day at Indiana University-Northwest, but there’s one student who received his diploma in an unusual place.

Graduation came to Joe Willis in his University of Chicago hospital room.

Friday the 23-year-old business school student traded his hospital gown for a graduation gown.

“When I was 21, I was diagnosed with heart failure, only ten percent of my blood flow was getting up to my body,” Willis told WGN.

Despite the fatigue and frustration and the strain and the struggle of serious heart disease causing him to miss a semester of school, Willis wasn’t ready to give up.

“Then I found out I had two blood clots the size of golf balls in my left ventricle,” he said.

Willis underwent open heart surgery to remove the blood clots. But eventually he also needed a heart transplant.

Dr Nir Uriel of the University of Chicago preformed a successful heart transplant but Willis’s body is still adjusting. He recently suffered what doctors described a “significant complication” as a result of his immuno-suppression therapy

“Sometimes the body can identify that this is not his own heart and can reject this heart,” said Dr Uriel. “When this happens we need to, for a period of time, intensify the immune suppression therapy.”

And that is why Willis he’s back in the hospital and not with his classmates.

But on his graduation day, he was with his dean, his team of doctors and his mother Beverly, who was beaming.

“His heart was taken out, but he received another heart, so now he really has two hearts – and he shows it,” she said.

Willis received his MBA and says he wants to use his skills in hospital management working with organ transplant patients.

Willis’s story of success took persistence and perseverance, but it took something deeper, too.  You might even say, it took a lot of heart.

“I just have a lot of passion. I love people, I love the world, and I want my passion to be felt by everybody, so I just work hard, try hard and keep on smiling.”

Willis hopes to be released from the hospital Friday.