Monday, April 27, 2009

The Story Begins

The Chuck Pappas Story

This is a blog to tell the story of Chuck Pappas. He is one of my closest friends. He is a man of amazing talents, huge heart, astounding strength and incredible compassion. Chuck and his wife Jen moved the country outside of Ithaca (Newfield to be exact) in December 2005 when he got a job as the Fulfillment Coordinator at Farm Sanctuary. My wife (Jenn with two “n”s) worked in the same office, and the four of us soon became good friends. I was impressed first by his great sense of humor and his seeming ability to build, fix or craft anything. The coffee table in their living room, which he had built from salvaged lumber and hardware, was a work of art. He also made these wooden boxes that hung on the walls, pieces that my art vocabulary is woefully underdeveloped to describe, but something like folk art meets Modernism meets Lewis Carol to build a birdhouse. I didn’t know what to call them (still don’t) but they were super cool. He was a real renaissance man.

I also thought it was cool that Chuck and Jen had chickens. Being vegan like us, they did not keep these chickens for their eggs but for their companionship, for the sheer pleasure of caring for them. In November 2006, they expanded their miniature sanctuary by adopting three turkeys from Farm Sanctuary as part of the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Adoption. Most people “adopt” turkeys at Farm Sanctuary in the nominal sense only: you send in a contribution; you get back a nice card featuring the picture and biography of a turkey whose lifelong care you have helped to sponsor. But Chuck and Jen, never short on commitment to animals in need, were glad to make actual space on their homestead for Karma, Cloud and Butterfly. Like almost all turkeys who began their lives on factory farms, these three were destined to suffer health problems. Particularly, they suffered chronic and debilitating foot problems because their toes had been cut off (a standard industry practice) and they had been bred to grow enormous. But Chuck and Jen dutifully did everything they could to provide a quality of life that made life worth living: changing foot wraps, cleaning stalls out daily, building better ramps to help the birds go in and out of their coop, paying for vet bills that never end. Most people don’t have room in their circle of compassion for a turkey, “a mere farm animal.” But Chuck and Jen aren’t most people.

The next additions to the Pappas animal sanctuary were Summer and Skye, two rambunctious sibling goats that had been rescued from an abusive situation in NYC. If building a turkey coop had been challenging, building a goat barn and pasture was a major undertaking. My Jenn and I were actually living in a yurt on their property at the time, so we saw first-hand the amount of work, love and money that went into giving those beautiful goats the best home a goat could ever want. By this time, Chuck had moved from his original job in the literature and merchandise fulfillment office to become the Shelter Projects Manager at Farm Sanctuary. So his work at home became like an extension of his work at work. For some folks, that would be a nightmare. But it seemed to me like this was what Chuck was born to do.

As the Shelter Projects Manager, he made sure that things on the sanctuary end of Farm Sanctuary all worked the way they were supposed to. If something needed to be installed, repaired, built or remodeled, he made sure it got done – often by doing it himself. Plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, fencing, landscaping, and even dredging the duck pond were all in a day’s work for Chuck. He also helped where needed with animal care, whether that meant feeding the cattle or transporting animals to and from the vet hospital. Right after I joined the Campaigns Department at Farm Sanctuary in 2007, I had the opportunity to drive with Chuck to Ontario, Canada to pick up half a dozen ducks that had been rescued out of the trash at a foie gras farm. We got lost along the way and had some trouble at the boarder – a long and entertaining story, I assure you. But in the end, the ducks arrived safely back in Watkins Glen where they now enjoy a life of ease.

Then last summer, Chuck was sent on a very different kind of rescue. Rains had been piling up on the Mississippi in late July, and before long there was major flooding all along the banks in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. This happens to be an area where there is a lot of pig production, and when the waters rose too high, many farmers abandoned ship. Or more accurately, they drove off down the road, leaving the pigs to fend for themselves. Suddenly, pigs could be seen paddling for their lives through the swollen muddy currents, many desperately scrambling onto levies to avoid drowning. Unfortunately for them, their hooves tended to endanger the integrity of the sandbags that held back the river. Local law enforcement, among others, decided it was better to shoot pigs than risk a leak. Amidst all this chaos, a multi-organizational team was formed with representatives from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the American Humane Association (AWA) and Farm Sanctuary. They went to Oakville, Iowa, an area that was particularly hard-hit. Chuck was one of the first on the scene from Farm Sanctuary, along with Dan D’Eramo (SP?) (Chief Cruelty Investigator) and Julie Janovsky (Campaigns Director).

For the next 21 days, Chuck and the others braved toxic-sludge-laden flood waters, scorching sun, poison ivy and more as they fought to save as many pigs as they could. While many locals were supportive, others saw the pigs as nothing more than meat or money, and they greeted the team with deep suspicion or outright hostility. Chuck and Dan had left New York in such a hurry that they barely had time to pack. For about the first week, they had almost no spare clothes to change into and little more than Cliff Bars and PB&Js to keep them going. They slept a scant few hours each night and woke before dawn to keep the rescue going. It was hard, exhausting and heartbreaking work. One day, Chuck found a pig who had been shot in the stomach. By who? For what? He soon realized that the pig was still alive, but she was beyond saving. All he could do was offer soothing words and a little kindness as she slowly slipped away. In the end, 69 pigs were brought back to Farm Sanctuary, thanks to the efforts of the rescue team. Everyone I’ve talked to who was on the ground with Chuck in Oakville has spoken of how impressed they were by his courageous and tireless performance. Chuck would never call himself a hero. But to everyone else on that team, and to the pigs whose lives were saved, that’s exactly what he is. There were other heroes in Oakville too, but we’re talking about Chuck here ;)

Summer faded into fall, and fall into winter. I guess that’s when Jen started to notice that Chuck was slowing down. Granted, working outside on the shelter in sub-zero weather is hard work, but even allowing for that, he seemed to be more tired he should be. He started craving junk food. He started forgetting to do his chores around the house, and some at work. But none of this seemed particularly alarming, just the ebb and flow of life.

On Saturday, March 22 this year, a few of us hung out with him all day and he seemed his usual self. But he spent all day Sunday with a monster headache. He’d been suffering from migraines since he was 12, so he took some pain killers and stayed in bed. On Monday, he still didn’t feel well, and Jen went to work at the Farm without him. She got a call in the middle of the day from someone on the shelter, asking where Chuck was. He hadn’t called in sick, and that was very odd behavior. He was still in bed when she got home, and by late that evening, she knew that something was wrong. He was becoming increasingly incoherent, and she decided to take him to the emergency room. After some undue delay in the waiting room, the doctors took a CAT scan and found a dark mass on Chuck’s brain. Suddenly the emergency room started acting like there was an emergency. As his vital signs went into a downward spiral, steroids and other medications were administered to keep him alive. Jen and Susie (Chuck’s boss) spent the night at his bedside in the Intensive Care Unit, doing everything they could to keep him awake and keep his pulse from dropping too low.

By the time my Jenn and I found out what was going on the next morning, his condition had stabilized. Jen’s mom Cheryl arrived from Boston, and Chuck’s mom Nancy from Connecticut, and we all waited together to see what would happen next. The steroids seemed to have relieved enough pressure on his brain that he was able to see us. He seemed relatively fine for while. We joked with him a bit while he waited to be taken for another MRI. But by late morning, Chuck’s pain was coming back and his condition began to deteriorate. The next thing we knew, he was being flown to Rochester by helicopter for emergency surgery. While Jen, Cheryl and Nancy drove at top speed to Rochester, the rest of us stayed behind and waited anxiously by our phones. I spent the night sleeping fitfully on their couch with their two Chihuahuas (Hank and Rocco), trying not to think about the unthinkable. When I awoke before dawn the next morning, the fire was out in the woodstove, Hank was sitting on my chest, and I didn’t know if Chuck had survived the night.

It was a terrifying time for everyone. Of course, Chuck did survive because he is as tough as they come and his medical team was at the top of its game. But what next?

We now know from the biopsy and other tests that Chuck has a grade IV glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. To date, he has spent over two weeks in the hospital, had more than a dozen MRIs, been operated on twice, given six prescriptions, and he’ll have titanium plates in his skull for the rest of his life. He and Jen have consulted with doctors in Ithaca, Rochester, Boston and New York. These doctors have concluded that Chuck will not be able to return to work, probably ever. And the medical bills are piling up fast. His emergency flight from Ithaca to Rochester was not covered by insurance, and the bill for that single item is about $10,000. That’s just the beginning.

Other than their two dogs who are relatively low maintenance, they are now unable to care for their animals. Fortunately, the Farm has been able to re-adopt their turkeys and goats, while Bryce and Natalie (two other friends from the Farm Sanctuary family) will be adopting their chickens. Their two cats have been placed in wonderful homes as well. But knowing that their adopted kids are being well loved under new roofs does not erase the pain of their absence.

Chuck is extremely fortunate in many ways. He is relatively young for his diagnosis. Aside from the tumor-induced slide into junk food that preceded his emergency, he’s been enjoying a relatively healthy vegan diet for more than seven years. He’s got an incredible team of doctors working on his case. He has an amazing and devoted collection of friends and family. He is getting a rapid education in alternative and complementary therapies that we know will work wonders. It is a simple matter of medical probability that he can expect a better outlook than anyone who was diagnosed last year, or two years ago, or at any time in the past. And as already mentioned, Chuck is no pushover. I am convinced that he is going to make medical history and have doctors scratching their heads.

All that said, I think it’s fair to say that Chuck and Jen have a long, hard, expensive road in front of them. They need all the help they can get. And they deserve every bit that we can give them. This is a blog to tell the story of Chuck Pappas. I have taken it upon myself to write this preamble, because I know that Chuck is too self-effacing to represent himself the way he deserves to be represented, as a truly remarkable and inspiring guy. But now the preamble is done, and the real story telling begins now, with Chuck and Jen. Please keep them in your thoughts as they journey forward.

-Casey Martinson


  1. Thanks for doing this Casey. it's so important that Chuck's story get out here-- and told by a great writer and a close friend. we all know how incredible Chuck really is. Chuck and Jen are constantly in my prayers.


  2. As a Farm Sanctuary supporter I am sending massive hugs, positive thoughts and will definitely contribute and publicize the walk!
    We are only given what we CAN handle...stay strong.


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