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CHICAGO — Munster resident Joe Willis, wearing a black cap and gown, graduated from college Thursday, his family members in attendance, his diploma handed to him from the dean as "Pomp and Circumstance" played.

The only thing was, he was in a hospital.

"I didn't think I was going to make it to graduation," said Willis, seated in a wheelchair at University of Chicago Medical Center, a smile beaming across his face, the Chicago skyline visible out the window. "But my graduation made it to me."

Indiana University Northwest was scheduled to celebrate its commencement Thursday. But Willis, set to graduate with a master's degree in business administration, was hospitalized after his body started rejecting the heart transplant he received in 2016.

The 26-year-old, who works as an athletic trainer for Community Hospital in Munster and grew up in East Chicago and Gary, figured he would just have to miss graduation. His family, at least, planned to come and throw a party for him.

But the hospital and school got word of it and teamed up to make sure Willis got the proper treatment.

Willis, wearing a face mask to protect against germs, walked into a packed, seventh-floor conference room Thursday afternoon, as the famous commencement song played out of a Bluetooth speaker.

"This is such a wonderful outpouring of support," said Cynthia Roberts, dean of the business school at IUN, before placing a pink-and-black hood around his neck and handing him his degree. "You're a graduate!"

His family and treatment team from University of Chicago noisily cheered. His 83-year-old grandfather was in attendance, celebrating a birthday.

"It's been a joy. It's been a blessing," said his mother, Beverly, radiating with elation. "Because Joe is so determined to succeed in life, even though he has challenges."

His health problems started five years ago, when his heart failed due to a bacterial infection. He had to miss a semester of school. He underwent open heart surgery.

His cardiac issues persisted. In 2014, a doctor at the University of Chicago told him he would need a new ticker. Two years later, he got one.

But two weeks ago, after returning home from a bachelor's party, Willis started having shortness of breath.

He went to the hospital, where doctors told him his body was rejecting the new organ. They put him on a regimen of anti-rejection drugs. His condition improved.

"Life sometimes can be hard, but I want to give strength and hope to people dealing with situations," Willis said, surrounded by cameramen from the Chicago TV news stations.

"Stay positive, and just listen to the doctors," he said, to the delight of the physicians in attendance. "That's the best thing you can do."

After the ceremony, Dr. Nir Uriel, director of the heart failure and transplant programs at University of Chicago, said Willis likely would be discharged the following day.

"This is an amazing moment," he said. "This is why we do what we do."


Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.