New York Times Neediest Cases

Illness Shakes Mother Who Rebuilt Her Life - The New York Times

For more than a month, Angélica Diaz refused to acknowledge the contents of a letter from her doctor. She kept it from her employer.

“I knew once I decided to give that letter, I’d have to stop working,” Ms. Diaz, 48, said. “I wouldn’t know how to feed my kids, and how to pay my rent or do anything else.”

Her health had become more fragile after she had a stroke in 2013. Ms. Diaz then learned she had other conditions, among them sleep apnea, dysplasia and chronic high blood pressure. In April 2015, she had another stroke, which impaired her memory and her mobility.

“Doctors say, ‘Either you stop working, or you die,’ ” Ms. Diaz said. “They said I couldn’t survive another situation.”

In June, she left her job as a director of social work at Terrace Healthcare Center in the Bronx.

Her tenuous health has overshadowed much of the last two years, and had an equally disruptive effect on her sons, Reyes Texidor, 22, and Emanuel Pantoja, 17.

“I come from a very hard background,” she said. “But the hardest thing was seeing your child looking at you, wondering, ‘Are you going to die and leave me?’ ”

Ms. Diaz, who grew up in Puerto Rico, first enrolled in college seven years ago as an adult barely fluent in English. It was a decision prompted by the declining health of her husband, who had diabetes.

“I knew he was going to die and I was afraid that I was going to be alone with my kids and not be able to give them something,” Ms. Diaz said. “So that pushed me to venture to college and finish college in order to give them a better life.”

Her husband died in 2011; Ms. Diaz earned her master’s degree in public health administration in 2013.

She had little sense of security growing up, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and an abusive father.

“If those two people who were supposed to protect me were the worst people I met, I could imagine how the world was,” she said.

It was impossible to trust anyone, she said, and when she was 13 years old, she was running in the streets.

“There’s nothing under the sun I haven’t done or seen,” she said.

When she was 17, Ms. Diaz came to New York City. At 18, she was charged with possessing and selling drugs. She spent five years in prison. Not long after her release, Ms. Diaz became a chaplain and an ordained minister, and spent years doing volunteer work in the Bronx.

After all of her service to the community, Ms. Diaz is flabbergasted by her inability to get help now that she cannot work. She was told that she was ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits because she had voluntarily left her job. The Social Security disability office told her it could help her apply for benefits, but there was a six-month wait.

“I’ve helped so many people,” she said. “I’m not asking for handouts. I’ve worked for it.”

Before Ms. Diaz left her job, she had fallen $6,600 behind in rent on her $1,650-a-month apartment in the Bronx, a result of having to reduce her work hours.

Ms. Diaz contacted Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. With its help, Ms. Diaz was approved for a one-time emergency grant from the Human Resources Administration, which paid her back rent. Catholic Charities is helping Ms. Diaz apply for subsidized housing and for disability benefits.

In August, Ms. Diaz moved in with her older son, hoping to defray expenses. Catholic Charities used $315 from the Neediest Cases Fund to buy a bed for her new home.

Mr. Texidor earns $18 an hour as a security guard. Emanuel, who lives with them, receives $1,257 a month in Social Security survivor benefits. Ms. Diaz receives $234 a month in food stamps. Their monthly rent is $1,300.

“Once you pay rent, what money do you eat with?” Ms. Diaz asked. “The last few months have been very bad, to the point where there is no food in my refrigerator.”

Ms. Diaz has a surgery scheduled in a few months to remove a noncancerous tumor from her throat. Once she feels healthy enough, she hopes to return to school and become a nurse, something she thought was not possible years ago, she said, because of her troubled past.

She has received a certificate of good conduct from the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that restores the “right to apply and be considered for employment or license.”

Helping others remains a priority despite her current problems.

“You never know when you’re going to be on the other side of that table,” Ms. Diaz said. “This is why I never judge any of the people I work with. I never knew when I was going to be in their shoes. It happened to be today.”

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