Grad earns degree with laptop in one arm, chemo IV in other

Ismael Murillo hugs his wife, Guadalupe, after graduating at the Fall Commencement afternoon session on Thursday.

Photos by Ralph Freso

After a terrible motorcycle accident, he finished a bachelor’s degree.

After a cancer diagnosis, he earned a master’s degree.

Ismael Murillo, who walked the stage at Grand Canyon University Fall Commencement on Thursday afternoon with a cybersecurity master’s degree, showed that nothing could stop him.

His 2019 diagnosis of multiple myeloma, or bone marrow cancer, dropped his life expectancy. And following a chemotherapy treatment when he experienced liver and lung failure in January 2020, his family was called in to say goodbye.

“The last thing I remember is them holding my arms down because they were about to put me to sleep and telling them to bring the children in because we don’t think he is going to make it,” Murillo said.

Murillo is congratulated by Dr. Mark Wooden, Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.

The explanation came later, after he survived the medically induced coma of 14 days: He had COVID-19 before doctors knew much about it.

“I had just woken up, and I see my wife sitting there,” he said. “They were asking her if we had prepared for home therapies because we don’t know if he suffered brain damage for being asleep so long. But as hard as I went down, I came back just as quickly.”

A day after his Feb. 11 coma emergence, his breathing tube came out. Within a few more days, he said, the nurses couldn’t keep up with him even though he was using a walker.

It was no wonder that Murillo powered through his studies, even as medical challenges continued.

“In November 2020 I had to go back on chemo, and I’ve been on it ever since,” he said.

Yet, Murillo continued working as a solutions architect at Amazon, completed several certifications for work, aced his graduate studies for GCU and kept his family of three children and his wife, Guadalupe, free of worry with continual cancer remissions.

Murillo, being hooded during the ceremony, recently learned that his cancer levels are up again.

But just as he was finishing up his 62-page capstone recently, he got news that for the first time in two years his cancer levels had gone up.

“We just went to Tucson to celebrate my degree,” he said, standing outside GCU Arena with Guadalupe, son Isaiah, 16, and daughter Fatima, 5. “Tomorrow I resume chemo. It puts me down for two or three days.”

He says it as if he’s getting dental work done.

The U.S. Army veteran had shown grit before. He had to leave his undergraduate studies at GCU and the ROTC after a serious motorcycle accident in 2012. But after grueling months of recovery, Murillo joined the military and resumed his studies online at GCU while on active duty and in 2015 earned a bachelor’s in justice studies.

His graduate studies were just another step.

“I only had to turn in late twice. I love the flexibility at GCU, as long as you maintain open communication with your professor and student services counselor,” he said. “I took my laptop to chemo. I’d have an IV in my arm. Drove my wife nuts. ‘Don’t you ever give it a break?’”

Murillo receives a plush bear from his 5-year old daughter, Fatima.

It was too important, not only for him and his future work with Amazon, which will enable him to use his cybersecurity knowledge, but as an example to his children and other students.

Things are going to happen. How are you going to push forward?

Ismael Murillo

“I don’t like excuses and I don’t like people to feel bad for me,” he said. “Bad things happen to good people all the time. It’s how we react to those situations that makes us who we are.

“I was told a long time ago – and it’s one of my favorite quotes – ‘There is no such thing as a bad day, there are only bad moments.’ It’s how we react to that moment that dictates how the rest of the day goes. That is something I tell my kids and other people.

“Things are going to happen. How are you going to push forward? Are you going to cry or are you going to give up? Or are you going to work toward your goals?

“The outside world is going to go on, with or without you. What are you going to do about it?”

With that, Ismael Murillo walked into the Arena and across the stage. Knowing about higher cancer levels yesterday. Planning for chemo tomorrow. But living right now.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU News: Grad shares journey from Australia to GCU

GCU News: Grad balances military training, GCU studies


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when He appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel — I will celebrate before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6:21)

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