Hospitalized with complications from a heart transplant, patient graduates during special ceremony

Patient Joe Willis with Cynthia Roberts, PhD, dean of IU Northwest’s School of Business and Economics

Complications from a 2016 heart transplant couldn’t keep Joe Willis from graduating. Stuck in the hospital on the day he was set to earn his MBA, we teamed up with his family and Indiana University Northwest to make sure the northwest Indiana man still received his graduate degree.

“I didn't think I was going to make it to graduation," Willis said from a wheelchair in a packed hospital conference room-turned-graduation venue. "But my graduation made it to me."

Willis’ in-hospital ceremony was led by Cynthia Roberts, PhD, dean of IU Northwest’s School of Business and Economics. Dozens of UChicago Medicine doctors and nurses, along with members of Willis’ family, crowded into a standing-room-only conference room to mark the special event. The ceremony included all the commencement hallmarks: There was full academic regalia, “Pomp and Circumstance,” a hand-delivered diploma and, of course, a celebratory graduation cake.

Joe Willis with Nir Uriel, MD
Joe Willis with Nir Uriel, MD 

“He always said ‘I’m going to graduate with my masters degree.’ And he did it," said Nir Uriel, MD, director of Heart Failure, Transplant and Mechanical Circulatory Support at UChicago Medicine, who’s cared for Willis for years. "He did it between appointments, between hospitalizations, between bad days, between good days.”

Willis, who wore a cap and gown along with a face mask to limit his exposure to germs, received a pink-and-black hood signifying his new advanced degree.

"This is such a wonderful outpouring of support," Roberts said. "You're a graduate!"