Stanislaw Kij eased his slight frame into a green gown, and for about half an hour Monday, he was like any other graduating college senior — delighting in his accomplishment and wondering what lies ahead.
Except that Kij doesn’t dare measure his future in years and the Burbank man’s graduation from Moraine Valley Community College was anything but ordinary.
Kij, who is battling advanced stomach cancer, was left speechless Monday, as staff at Advocate Christ Medical Center treated him to a surprise private graduation — complete with guests, balloons, a cake and, of course, “Pomp and Circumstance” playing on a mini boombox.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Kij, 25, as a nurse rolled his wheelchair into the converted conference room.
His mother, Helena Kij, held back tears as Sandra S. Wagner, chairwoman of the college’s board of trustees handed her son his associate’s degree. Mom spent Sunday praying that her boy would get a respite from the knifing gut pain that comes with the disease.
Kij had more than enough credits to graduate from Moraine Valley last May. But he hadn’t notified the college of his intent to finish, preferring instead to continue taking classes. That worried Kij’s medical team, who wanted him to focus on his treatment. So they arranged for Monday’s event.
“I was just supposed to go for a change of scenery,” Kij said, explaining the ruse nurses used to get him out of his hospital room.
Kij, his parents and younger sister came from Poland 11 years ago in search of the American dream. Their son learned English and Spanish. When he graduated from Reavis High School in 2007, he started taking classes at Moraine Valley.
Kij’s cancer came last winter, with symptoms that felt like food poisoning or the flu. Back then, Kij weighed 230 pounds and his muscles bulged from working out. The disease has whittled his body to a mere 135 pounds. He vomits frequently. He was still taking an online class last month, despite the acute pain and medications that leave him hopelessly drowsy.
Though a student needs only 62 credits to graduate, Kij has amassed 147, but he never took the bureaucratic steps necessary to graduate.
“I could probably be working on my masters,” joked Kij. “I just followed my interests.”
The college reviewed his academic history and realized he was eligible for a degree.
“We take the word ‘community’ in our name very seriously,” said Sylvia Jenkins, Moraine Valley president.
“We understand our purpose and mission to help everyone in our community,” she said. “I’m thankful we are able to do it.”
Kij is set to start his third round of chemotherapy this week. He’s undergone radiation, too. Surgery isn’t an option unless the tumors in his stomach shrink, his parents said.
His father, Jan Kij, a butcher at the famed Bobak Sausage Company, said through a translator that Kij’s chances are “fifty-fifty.”
The younger Kij, who goes by “Stan,” used to spend many hours at the gym, lifting weights and socializing with other gym rats. He worked the midnight shift at a nearby Food 4 Less, restocking shelves, and loved to eat, especially traditional Polish pork chops and cabbage, said his mom, a cleaner. The cancer means he now can’t eat solids — save for a bite of his chocolate birthday cake in June.
But his genial disposition hasn’t left him.
“He’s probably the most polite young man I have ever met in my whole life,” said Gerri Neylon, a radiation and oncology nurse at Christ and the founder of the charity Christmas Without Cancer, which helped organize Kij’s ceremony. “In the waiting room, he talks to other patients and wishes them well.”
He’s also concerned about how his family will fare if he’s not there to care for them, his parents said.
But on Monday — if only for a short time — it was all about Stan Kij.
His parents beamed with pride. High school friends cheered him.
“You are the most selfless young man I’ve ever met,” Neylon said, as some 50 or so guests looked on. “I’m so proud of and I wish you nothing but happiness.”
Stan Kij isn’t sure what he will do next when it comes to his studies. But he’d like to get another degree, he said.
“Hopefully, I survive.”