Now in college, Alec Cabacungan says giving back to Shriners hospitals means giving hope to kids like him
Born with brittle bone disease, Cabacungan has been part of the Shriners family since he was 2 months old.
Alec Cabacungan wants to be a sports broadcaster. It’s been his dream for as long as the 19-year-old Oak Park resident can recall.
Talking with him, you can sense his fighting spirit will make it happen, the spirit that has gotten him through a lifetime of surgeries and physical therapy.
You can see the determination in his infectious smile and the big brown eyes that have endeared him to thousands of TV viewers.
Cabacungan is THAT Alec, the patient ambassador/spokesman for Shriners Children’s Chicago (formerly Shriners Children’s Hospital) who, through a series of commercials the past seven years, has asked people to give generously to the nationwide hospital system and receive one of those “cuddly” red Teddy bear blankets as a thank-you.
He’s a young man on a mission.
Born with brittle bone disease — osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI, a genetic bone disorder blamed on a lack of or abnormal collagen in the bones, causing them to break frequently and easily — Cabacungan has been part of the Shriners family since he was 2 months old.
He’s undergone countless operations, having broken over 60 bones in his lifetime. His most recent procedure was in December, after his wheelchair flipped while he was wheeling across a snowy sidewalk, leaving him with a broken left shoulder, right knee and left hip.
It was a setback not only physically but academically, too. He’s had to take a leave of absence from Northwestern University, where he’s majoring in sports broadcasting, to undergo the intense post-surgery physical therapy at the Oak Park Avenue hospital center.
“Alex has a relatively severe form of the disease,” says Dr. Peter Smith, Cabacungan’s longtime physician and surgeon at Shriners. “He was born with fractures and bowing of the long bones of his arms and legs. So he required lots of splinting and casting when he was younger and subsequently surgery on most of the long bones of his body to put in intramedullary rods to make the bones stronger. It makes the bone more straight, more stable so it doesn’t break so much.”
The life-changing rods were invented at Shriners more than 70 years ago, Smith says. “It revolutionized the care of children with the disease because it made it possible for them to move around better and have less fractures. They were now able to be out of the house and go to school and do all of the things that they could not previously do.”
For Cabacungan, it meant being able to live a fuller life, including playing wheelchair basketball — Shriners named its onsite basketball court in his honor — and attending “regular school like his sisters and his friends.”
He graduated from Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and Oak Park River Forest High School, and “everyone was tremendous at school. There was no bullying. I had a great support group, from students to faculty to parents, who always looked out for me. I mean, it was tough at times, being the only kid in school in a wheelchair, but they never made me feel out of place.
“I always hung out with the sports kids, and they always made me feel awesome,” he says. “In sixth grade, I found wheelchair sports and got really involved with the Chicago Park District’s adaptive sports programs. From sixth grade on, I played wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball, and that’s when I really felt like I was part of a team.”
These days, he’s focused on college at Northwestern, where he lives in a dorm and drives a specially modified van. But Cabacungan says he also wants to continue “to give back to Shriners,” to give hope to kids like him and their families.
“When I was in sixth or seventh grade, someone from administration asked my family and I to participate in a commercial fundraising effort for the hospital,” Cabacungan says. “Shriners has helped me in every aspect of my life, so my family and I decided that, if it was gonna help the hospital and the kids, we were gonna do it.”
“In any kind of rare disease, the dissemination of information serves several functions,” Smith says. “It allows parents and others to rally together to raise money and awareness for research, treatment and support groups for families, for example. Alec has raised the awareness for Shriners tremendously. It takes someone like Alec who’s got that great, feisty personality.”
In addition to the commercials (which often co-star Montreal-based Kaleb-Wolf De Melo Torres, his pal and “little brother,” whom he calls “King Kaleb”), Cabacungan and his parents Alma and Gill Cabacungan travel the country on behalf of Shriners. He’s attended NBA, NFL and college games across the country, getting the word out about OI and Shriners — and honed his sportscasting/color commentary skills. He has hosted his own YouTube show, interviewing athletes across the sports spectrum.
“I’ve always been a sports nut,” Cabacungan says. “When I was younger, I was watching guys like Derrick Rose and Devin Hester in Chicago just do these freakishly [incredible] things during games. And, to me, they were superheroes. I always knew I wasn’t gonna be seven feet tall and jump out at the gym. But my dad and I, we played a lot of games at home, and he always wanted me to be at my best. Sports was always a way for us to bond.”
He’s even met some of his idols, including Tiger Woods, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Zion Williamson and Brett Favre. “I’ve met some pretty amazing people,” he says. “The little kid in me always gets excited.”
Cabacungan hopes one day to work for a major network, “call an NBA game, cover the Super Bowl.” But he’d especially love to cover the Paralympics.
“I would like to see more people with disabilities cover the Paralympics because I’m not the only person with a physical disability who wants to do sports journalism. I’d like to be able to do that in 2024, cover the summer Paralympics in Paris. I want to push the boundaries for people with disabilities in the sports media world.
“I never felt like people could stop me, even though in the back of my mind I can never forget about my disability,” Cabacungan says. “There are lots of obstacles that people with disabilities just have to face in their lives in general. I was on top of the world last November. And then the accident happened, and it changed the trajectory of the next four months. There are definitely times when I get down on myself. I feel like I’m competing more with myself than anybody else.
“I just hope people realize that people with disabilities aren’t different than anyone else,” he says. “We have feelings, we have a heart, and we shouldn’t be treated differently just because we look different. I hope that’s OK to say. That’s how I go about my life. You should expect us to do great things, too.”
And, yes, he says with a laugh, those are “really good quality” Shriners bear blankets.
Shriners Hospitals is a system of 22 children’s hospitals supported by the Masonic Shriners International fraternity. This year marks the 100th birthday of its original Shreveport, Louisiana, location — the Oak Park Avenue location in Chicago opened in 1926. It provides all medical care, testing, treatment and therapy for patients up through 18 years old regardless of ability to pay.