Elgin student uses health struggles to inspire graduates in commencement address

It’s graduation season but for some students, the road to receiving their diploma has been anything but easy.

In a FOX 32 Special Report, Sylvia Perez introduces us to one graduate who some simply say is a miracle.

Alexander Greiff is one of the many students graduating this spring from Elgin Community College. In addition to achieving high honors, he was also selected as one of the commencement speakers.

"I said I would like to inspire the graduates because if I can leave them with a sense of hope and a sense that they have a tomorrow, then that’s what I’d like to do," Alex said.

That’s important because Alex doesn’t know how many more tomorrows he has.

"My story started before I was born. When my mom was pregnant with me, the doctors didn’t even know if I would live a year. I’m still here now," he said.

"Alex is our miracle," his mom Traci Greiff-Donner said. "I did find out when I was pregnant with him that his heart was on the right side instead of the left."

As a result, Traci said he was born with several defects in his heart, lungs and airways. He was also diagnosed with autism at age three. Despite all that, Alex has defied the odds for 27 years.

"He always sees the positive, the good in everything and I think that’s why he’s still here," Traci said.

But Alex credits his family.

"I’m blessed to have a brother and sister who mean the world to me. A mother who sacrifices everything. I don’t know how she does it," Alex said.

Alex’s college years were not typical ones. He started taking classes at Elgin Community College in the fall of 2020.  

"Because of those personal challenges, he has taken almost exclusively online classes which can add an additional layer of complexity because students have to be self-organized and self-motivated," said John Long, dean of students at Elgin Community College.

"They have to be able to advocate for themselves. In ways, students who are on campus don’t have to think about as much because they have that direct proximity to a faculty member," Long added.

Instead of taking spring break road trips with his friends, Alex and his mom frequently drove to the Mayo Clinic.

"There was a point, we were going to Mayo Clinic every 10 days to two weeks," Traci said.

While Alex didn’t always talk about those trips with his teachers, he still did not miss a beat with his studies.

"They didn’t know he had any of these issues, and we would tell them once in a while when he would have surgery out there, but he would just bring it with, and he’d work ahead," Traci said.

"He’s been an exceptional student and has just exemplified, I think, all of the characteristics of perseverance and grit and a positive attitude all along the way that we hope for all of our students," Long said.

Alex graduated with a 4.0 GPA.

"I would say in the past couple years it’s gotten harder to move around and eat and do what I enjoy," Alex said.

Alex copes with the constant pain he's had for years by simply heading outdoors.

"So sitting outside and watching the birds just gives me, it draws me a little closer to God, and it helps me to appreciate, to not take life for granted. Helps me realize that every day is a gift and to take a moment and just step back a little bit," Alex said.

Alex graduated with an associate arts degree with an emphasis on theater. His lifelong passion for performing is another way he coped with his chronic pain while bringing joy to others.

Alex made his stage debut at 10-years-old and, since then, has been in countless plays in middle school, high school, the park district and his church.

He even started his own theater company, The House of Friends, where he performs for friends and family at home.

"I played so many roles it’s hard to pick a favorite," Alex said. "If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say probably Horton."

Besides landing the starring role in Dr. Seuss's "Horton Hears a Who" and "The Lorax", it’s his supporting role in another play where his family says art seems to imitate life.

"I played Clarence the Angel too in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’," Alex said.

Alex said one scene in particular is the best part of the movie.

"How Clarence shows him [George Bailey] that there’s more to life than just our everyday struggles and that Clarence showed him the beauty of those relationships that mean the most," Alex said.

"Alex has this light within him, and he just shines. He makes everybody smile wherever he goes - everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day, whatever. His smile just makes every moment better," Traci said.

Right now, his family is hoping to get as many moments as they can with Alex.

"He is in heart failure, and he was just recently entered into palliative care, which is the step right before hospice," according to Traci.

"His tricuspid valve right now is leaking severely, so he’s had a lot of chest pain and on top of stomach, GI [gastrointestinal] pain. He has that large hole at the bottom of his esophagus, but he’s had other GI problems," she added.

His mom said Alex's doctors at the Mayo Clinic believe any kind of surgery going forward will be too high risk for him.

"We don’t know how long he has, so that’s why this graduation is such a huge deal," Traci said.

Which also makes his leading role at graduation a huge deal. Just like Clarence, he has the opportunity to teach us all an important lesson.

"I thought the most important words I could say to them were 'it’s not what we do for ourselves that counts. True meaning lies in what we do for others. That is life's greatest gift'," Alex said at graduation.

After graduating last Saturday, Alex and his mom are heading back up to the Mayo Clinic this week for another appointment.

In addition to juggling those medical bills, Alex's family is also trying to accomplish a few things on his bucket list, like seeing a Broadway show in New York.