ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Thalia Papadakis has always had a soft spot for the needy creatures of the world. A blind horse. A dying pig. A discarded dog, his tail and paws frozen.
She supports saving the whales, protecting endangered species great and small. Her Facebook page is full of gruesome posts excoriating the monsters who abuse animals with knives and ropes and neglect. She eats vegan.
And the cats. Lordy, the cats.
Papadakis has been fostering cats for years, many in such bad shape that even the kindest cat ladies might find some of them too far gone to save. Cats with no hind legs. Cats with no bladder control. Toothless cats. Deaf cats. Asthmatic cats. Angry, unsocial cats. And one cat with a skin disease called pemphigus, noted for oozing open sores that inspired Papadakis to nickname the ailment kitty leprosy.
Papadakis’ desire to help those in need isn’t relegated to the animal kingdom. Since 2011, she has been an Albuquerque Public Schools counselor, working with some of the district’s neediest students from some of the roughest, most impoverished communities where free school lunches may be the only meal they eat in a day and her comforting, wise words the only thing to save them from despair.
I met Papadakis in December 2014 at Alamosa Elementary School on the West Mesa, where she introduced me to some of the children and one of her foster cats.
Ziggy had been tossed out on a roadway with a broken back and lifeless, ulcerated back legs. She was dehydrated, malnourished, covered in fleas and urinating blood.
But Papadakis nursed the kitten back to health and began taking her to school, where students designed and crafted a suspension walker that allowed the paraplegic kitten to roll along.
“We decided to be kind and help Ziggy,” one fourth-grader told me proudly.
Now, it is Papadakis who needs kindness and help.
Registration for the new school year began at Alamosa this week, but Papadakis, 39, won’t be there to greet the students. She wasn’t there most of the last school year, either, sidelined in September by several painful, debilitating medical conditions.
She lists her ailments, nearly all of which fall under dysautonomia, an umbrella term used to describe a variety of conditions caused by the malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system, which controls basic automatic bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sweating and kidney function:
• Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which causes her joints to dislocate.
• Blood pressure that falls so low it causes her to pass out almost without warning.
• Frequent kidney stones.
• Degenerative arthritis.
• Liver hemangioma, which causes an inability to process solid foods, nausea and vomiting.
Worst of the lot is the gastroparesis, which prevents her stomach from emptying food into the small intestine.
“It means that I cannot eat solid foods and that even when I drink anything it causes extreme pain,” she said.
So extreme, she said, that she relegates herself to a single organic vegan smoothie each day, supplementing that with water mixed with electrolytes and sodium. She estimates she’s been losing 10 pounds a month.
Her illness has left her nearly homebound, tied to her bathroom, her freezer full of smoothies, her five cats and her books and the medications she needs to manage her condition.
It’s quite a change for a woman who grew up healthy in sunny Greece, who ran her own Pilates studio, spent hours in belly dancing and ballet classes, shared adventures with friends around the world and obtained not one but two master’s degrees, simultaneously.
“No one in my family is sick like this,” she said. “It’s not anything I ever expected.”
It’s too soon, she said, to know her prognosis. More testing, biopsies, motility studies, neurology screenings lie ahead. She knows there are no cures for what she has. There are no magic pills.
But there is determination.
“I worked so hard to get where I am,” she said. “I break out crying when I think of being on permanent disability. That is not what I want. My goal is to get my doctorate and become a school psychologist, to continue to help kids.”
Papadakis said she has been reluctant to share her illness with her friends, many of whom live around the world, most of whom do not know what she has endured.
She was encouraged to reach out by a fellow school counselor who learned that Papadakis’ long-term disability through APS is up in September. After that, her health insurance premiums are expected to more than double. A GoFundMe account has been set up to defray her expenses – another change for a woman used to saving others, not herself.
“I still have things I want to do,” she said.
We are fortunate to have people in this world who do the work of angels. It seems only right to return the favor when the angels ask.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.