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Brooklyn quadriplegic perseveres, earns a master’s degree

Despite overwhelming obstacles, 51-year-old 'writes with his eyes'

May 7, 2021 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Brooklynite Eliseo Ilarraza is a 51-year-old quadriplegic who writes with his eyes. An infrared camera on Ilarraza’s computer tracks the gaze of his pupils as he forms words, one letter at a time, and fashions them into sentences.

Two weeks ago, Ilarraza, who has been incapacitated by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) since 2002,  aced his final research project — a “100” on a seven-page paper — to complete his master’s degree in social work, against overwhelming odds. 

Since enrolling online at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU), a Catholic university in San Antonio, Texas, in 2015, Ilarraza has persevered through dire health challenges: the collapse of his left lung on multiple occasions, numerous bouts of pneumonia and paralysis stemming from his illness.

He withdrew from school so often he lost count “after five times.” In spite of these challenges, Ilarraza is graduating cum laude on Saturday from OLLU’s Worden School of Social Service. Unable to travel, he will watch commencement ceremonies from his bed in Brooklyn, according to the school.

“It is exciting to finally achieve my dream of becoming an elite social worker to help the needy,”  he said through an email, produced with his eyes. “My goal is to inspire millions of people who read my story.” 

Elisio Ilarraza, quadriplegic and master’s degree recipient. Photo courtesy of OLLU

Ilarraza already has inspired many. He’s written four books since 2011, including “Frozen for a Higher Purpose.” His determination and skill have moved professors and classmates. 

During his field practicum, Ilarraza counseled a licensed social worker who was battling suicide ideation. Communicating through text messages, Ilarraza was able to provide lifesaving help and resources. “We came up with a plan to keep her safe,” Ilarraza said. “It was a successful intervention.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Ilarraza is the fourth youngest in a family of 13 children. He moved to the U.S. at the age of 11. As a young adult, Ilarraza worked as a drug counselor, served as a worship leader in his church in Brooklyn and helped people battling addiction.

“I did outreach with my youth pastor and reached thousands of young people bound to drugs and alcohol abuse,” said Ilarraza, who earned a bachelor’s in human services from New York City College of Technology, aka City Tech, in Downtown Brooklyn in 1999.

Three years later, he was diagnosed with ALS. 

“First, I lost my ability to speak,” he said. “Then the legs weakened. And then one night, I fell down the stairs, and I was rushed to the hospital. I never got up after that.”

Doctors gave him five years to live. Ilarraza sank into depression.  

“I had thoughts of death, day and night, until I prayed,” he said.

Determined to live, Ilarrazas surpassed medical expectations and discovered OLLU’s master’s program while surfing online. 

“I had a burning passion to get a master’s in social work because I never lost my passion for helping others,” he said.

Cynthia Squiabro, an advisor for the school, has mentored Ilarraza for several years and believes in his aspirations.

“He wants to sit for the social work licensure, which will be a challenge,” Squiabro said. “But there is no challenge he has not overcome. He has already started researching doctoral programs for social work.” 

Illaraza also credits the ALS Association’s Greater New York Chapter for its help, especially social worker Sue Zimmerman, with whom he has been working for 10 years.

And because of the Greater New York Chapter’s Equipment Loan Program, he has received some of the tools he needs to succeed in his quest, including the eye tracking device he is using to complete his courses. A volunteer from the chapter is also helping Eddie secure an internship that he will complete remotely from his apartment, according to the ALS local chapter.

Illaraza’s Linkedin profile also mentions him as awriter, Songwriter, Composer, Philanthropist, and Founder of Ilarraza Global Company.”

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