Heart transplant recipient receives diploma in hospital

Mark Rivera Image
Friday, May 11, 2018
Heart transplant recipient receives diploma in hospital
A heart transplant recipient received his diploma Thursday, but not on stage.

CHICAGO -- A heart transplant recipient received his diploma Thursday, but not on stage. He was in a cap and gown in a hospital.

Joseph Willis earned his master's degree in business administration at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.

But his body began rejecting his transplant, making it impossible to attend the graduation ceremony. So, in front of his whole family and care team, graduation day came to him.

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This isn't how the 26-year-old thought it was going to happen, but he did it.

"I finally got my master's, so it's a dream come true. I always wanted to achieve my master's degree," Willis said from his wheelchair at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

When Willis was 21, he was diagnosed with heart failure.

"I actually applied for the MBC program in the hospital after I was told I needed a heart transplant," he said.

He got a donor heart in 2016 and was supposed to walk across the stage at Indiana University Northwest on Thursday, but just a few weeks ago, his body started to reject the new heart.

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"I had moments of doubt, you know, with a heart transplant, going to get a master's, working full time, just trying to tackle life," Willis said.

Pomp and circumstance played as Willis was awarded his master's by Indiana University Northwest Dean of the School of Business and Economics, Cynthia Roberts.

"Everyone's keeping me alive, keeping me going, and that's why I'm so positive. Because of all of the people around me," Willis said.

To his mother Beverly, Willis is an inspiration.

"He is determined to keep going to keep pushing like the energizer bunny I guess. But he always, always continued to smile and be happy," she said. "I am very proud of him, very proud."

And for Willis, "I just wake up every day, some days are good, some days are bad, just roll with the punches," he said. "Life's ok, life's good, life's fun."

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Willis said with his new diploma in hand, he wants to work with philanthropic organizations tailored to organ recipients just like himself.

And even though the last few weeks of recovery have been really scary for him and his family, Willis could get out of the hospital as early as Friday.