August 31, 2013

Woman defies odds to help other Latinos

She overcame a diagnosis of paralysis to found the organization that she'd envisioned while ill.

By SIMON RIOS The Standard Times

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. - Just two years ago, Mariangeli Vargas was told by doctors that she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life. For a lover of community life, it was the worst diagnosis imaginable.

click image to enlarge

Mariangeli Vargas, founder of the recently-formed Puerto Rican and Latin American Art and Culture Committee, stands in the office at her New Bedford, Mass., home, in June.

The Associated Press

But Vargas made a promise to God and to herself that if she ever walked again she would dedicate herself to protecting other Latinos from the pitfalls that nearly rendered her an invalid -- and her call was answered.

"My story's a little complicated," said a smiling "Angie" Vargas, 44, who moved to New Bedford four years ago after falling ill.

Sitting beneath the flag of her native Puerto Rico, she told the story of her long path to forming the Puerto Rican and Latin American Art and Culture Committee, the group she established after two years between hospital beds and rehab centers.

Born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in 1969, Vargas studied at Inter American University of Puerto Rico before marrying and moving with her family to Attleboro in 1993.

Vargas said she moved to the United States because she was raped in college and had to escape the stigma she suffered in her country. She was also attempting to save her marriage to a man who had fathered her three children.

But things weren't any better in the states -- after splitting with her husband, she lost her house, then her two daughters decided to stay with dad.

"When that happened that kind of broke my heart, because I was a very hard-working woman trying to raise my kids on my own," she said.

In spite of her troubles, Vargas had established herself in Attleboro, volunteering, working in the schools and directing a homeless shelter.

When she fell ill in 2009, she moved to stay with family in New Bedford. Then things took a turn for the worse -- one day Vargas' gallbladder burst, poisoning her body and nearly killing her.

She said the doctors saved her life, but in the hospital she fell into an eight-day coma.

"I started losing my ability to walk, to talk, I ended up in a wheelchair," she said. "I was completely paralyzed in bed for almost eight months. I lost my hearing in both ears. ... After that, I made a promise to myself when I was very close to death."

The promise was to help other Latinos, but it would be more than a year before she was ready to walk again.

That's when Vargas met a man she calls an angel who would help usher in her recovery -- Matt Dansereau, coordinator of the office for people with disabilities at Catholic Social Services.

"When I first met her she was better than her worst point, and then she got worse as the condition got worse," Dansereau said, "and then I helped her get into rehab."

He met with Vargas every day for months, helping her navigate the system and get the support she needed. Because she had been rendered nearly mute, Dansereau was the only one who could understand her, and he translated for Vargas as she went about her recovery.

He said if it weren't for state benefits, Vargas could easily have ended up homeless and permanently bound to her wheelchair. But she had a spirit that wouldn't allow her to succumb.

"She's just a wonderful, wonderful woman," Dansereau said. "Always positive, even with everything that happened to her, she was always deep down very positive about everything."

But a doctor at Greater New Bedford Community Health Center would give Vargas her golden ticket, permitting her to do rehab. It would start with a two-week trial period, and if her body didn't respond, she wouldn't be able to continue the costly treatment.

(Continued on page 2)

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