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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Mary Washington Hospital hosts its first college graduation

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dennis Hundley passed away Saturday morning.

Dennis Hundley shares a moment with Rachel Holloway, Virginia Tech dean, moments after she presided over Hundley's graduation ceremony. Photo by Dave Ellis.

Dennis Hundley could not attend his graduation today at Virginia Tech. So the school brought the ceremony to him.

Dozens of friends and family members cheered as Rachel Holloway, associate dean at the Blacksburg school, presented Hundley with his diploma Thursday in the intensive care unit at Mary Washington Hospital.

Hundley, 22, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, summa cum laude. He was one of the school’s Commonwealth Scholars and an honor roll student every semester. He  graduated in just over four years in the top 10 percent of his class.

He accomplished this despite being a cancer patient during much of his college career. He suffers from an aggressive form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It starts to go away, but then it comes back,” said Kathy Hundley, his mother.

Dennis Hundley grew up in the Fredericksburg area, the youngest of Al and Kathy Hundley’s three sons. He enrolled at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2007, soon after graduating from Courtland High. He was an AP student at the Spotsylvania County school, as well as a member of its swimming and tennis teams.

He was diagnosed with cancer when he was 19 and a sophomore at Virginia Tech. He underwent several forms of treatment including chemotherapy, radiation and two stem cell transplants. All the while, he continued his studies, working with Holloway, the Virginia Tech dean, to juggle his schedule.

“At one point he was driving himself to chemotherapy, so we needed to make sure we got his classes set up so he had the time to do the treatments.” she said.

Dennis Hundley receives his diploma from Virginia Tech Dean Tom Brown.

Hundley suffered a setback last month while attending the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech football game in Atlanta. He was airlifted back to Fredericksburg and Mary Washington and has been in the hospital’s intensive care unit ever since.

When it became clear that he would not be able to attend today’s graduation at the university, his parents worked with Virginia Tech and the hospital to craft a more personal ceremony.

Hospital officials said they’ve hosted several weddings, but never a commencement. They found space beside the intensive care unit big enough for the expected crowd. When the time came, a team of nurses unhooked Hundley from his monitors, IV drips and respirator, moved him down the hallway, and hooked him to a second set of machines.

Hundley dressed for the occasion in the traditional cap and gown and a pair of Virginia Tech socks. He listened as friends talked of his poise and determination.

“I’ve earned several degrees in my career, but I’ve never had to do it while I had cancer,” said Dr. Clif Sheets, a family friend and neighbor.

Hundley is unable to speak, so he used a Magna Doodle to write out a speech for the occasion. His brother, Doug, read it for him.

“It is an honor to be the valedictorian at the first Virginia Tech graduation at Mary Washington Hospital,” he joked.

He added that “this is not the way any of us envisioned my graduation.” And he said, “There has hardly been a single minute over the course of the last month that I have not had someone by my side to help me. For that I thank you.”

Friends surrounded his bed to pose for group pictures. Soon, the nurses signaled that it was time for Hundley to return to his room.

Before he left, someone asked for his reaction to the commencement ceremony. “Excited,” he wrote on his tablet. “Amazed.”