Karen Zapata had a rough go from the start, but faith and a positive attitude have brought her through it all.
“I was born in St. Louis on a fire truck,” said Zapata, an administrative assistant for the College of Nursing on TWU’s Dallas campus. “My mother (who was nine months pregnant at the time) decided to go to a parade alone.”
After the parade, her mother realized she was in labor and stopped at a phone booth, but passed out before she could call for help. A fireman on a truck leaving the parade saw her legs sticking out of the booth and stopped to help. Zapata was born a “blue baby” and had to be incubated for almost four weeks until she could breathe on her own.
“My grandmother always loved telling me my birth story and would tell me that I had cheated death and the devil was going to chase me down, but that silly devil didn’t know I would find God and Christ,” she said.
A terrible accident at the age of 6 led Zapata to begin her faith journey. As she laid there alone, bones broken, she said, “I remembered to pray. I learned that in Sunday school, and the stories of Jesus always stayed with me. I prayed that Jesus would save me and make me brave because I was scared.”
Later, when her father went to Vietnam, she said, “My stepmother did not want the responsibility of me. I was put in a foster home for four years and often attended a church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. It was there my faith grew stronger and took root.”
The oldest of eight children, Zapata grew up taking care of her younger siblings because her mother often was bedridden with depression. She got a job in a grocery store when she was 14 and hasn’t stopped working since, though the early years were lean.
She married at 18 and had a son, but when the marriage ended, Zapata left New York with her son and moved back to her father’s home in Arkansas. She found a job at a fast-food restaurant and quickly became the assistant manager, but still barely made ends meet.
“I became fascinated with an opportunity in Dallas, so I packed my bags and son once again, used my tax return and bought a car for $300 and drove to Texas with a small trailer in tow with all of our belongings,” she said.
She settled in Longview and eventually met and married her second husband. The couple had a daughter, but the marriage didn’t last.
“We tried to make it work, but it became clear we could not live in the same town,” Zapata said. Once again, she moved — this time to Fort Worth. She decided to attend the University of Texas at Arlington and started a house cleaning business while holding down two other jobs as she worked toward her degree.
“I became obsessed with learning,” Zapata said. “I had always told my children while I was carrying them that they would go to college. They did, and what a success they became! Now it was my turn, and I couldn’t stop.”
She graduated with not one, but two bachelor’s degrees.
“I had so many credits,” she said. “My advisors kept changing, so no one noticed until I applied for graduation.”
Zapata married her current husband before entering graduate school and earning her master’s degree. “We have been married for more than 16 years,” she said. “He is wonderful and supported me going to graduate school in my 50s!”
She began working at Texas Woman’s after being laid off at another company. After only a year at TWU, Zapata learned she had breast cancer. She didn’t have a full mastectomy, opting instead to have more than half of each breast removed.
“The worst part is I lost most of my hair and it never grew back,” she said. “I have had to wear a wig for nine years. My husband still tells me I’m beautiful all the time, even though I don’t wear my wigs at home. I told you he was wonderful!”
Zapata is cancer-free; the only complication has been high blood pressure.
“Stress makes it go out of this world,” she said. “I am learning yoga; it really helps.”
Zapata was diagnosed with colitis/diverticulitis last year and has adjusted her diet in an effort to avoid surgery. There’s a long list of foods she can’t eat, such as corn products, anything sticky or stringy, anything with skins, etc.
Despite having to make a major lifestyle adjustment, Zapata maintains a positive attitude.
“I miss peanut butter and celery and spinach and berries so much, but I know I am blessed to have the option to fight this disease with a proper diet, so I am thankful.”
Gratitude is an attitude she carries with her at all times, even on those long drives to the Dallas campus from her home in Justin.
“I listen to my favorite Christian radio station,” she said. “Most days, it keeps me from saying expletives, and it passes the time quickly.”
Zapata has reached the age of retirement, but hasn’t decided when she’ll leave.
“I do want to spend quality time with my family and close friends,” she said. Family includes her son, his wife and their two daughters in Plano; and her daughter in Austin.
Zapata also loves gardening and traveling, and wants to keep volunteering and helping others. She also may take some more courses toward another degree.
“I only lack a few credits to get a BS in business,” she said.
“There are so many things to look forward to, and I will be happy to start that new chapter when the time comes. No matter what, I have had a very blessed life, and I am most grateful for the privilege to have lived and be living it.”
By Karen Garcia
Marketing & Communication