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The Graduates of 2012

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With her doctors' help, day comes up aces

On the morning of graduation, Julia Stathopoulos woke up in her hospital room for the 22nd day in a row.

She didn’t know if she would make it to the Providence High ceremony that afternoon.

But come noon, the 18-year-old was the first to cross the stage.

Last month, she suffered a collapsed lung. Stathopoulos, who lives with restrictive lung disease and a rare genetic condition, was rushed to Presbyterian Hospital, where she rested – until her lung collapsed again last Friday.

The Tuesday ceremony seemed out of the question, but her doctors made a few adjustments, disconnecting her chest tube and sealing off her lung. The decision lay with her.

She wanted to be part of things, she said in an interview in her hospital room this week, and, after all, high school graduation happens only once.

Stathopoulos, who has had more than a dozen surgeries, said positivity is the way she gets through each day. “I don’t see any point in complaining because it’s not going to make it any better, and then you just feel miserable,” she says. “I’ve always gone to the quote, ‘It’s not the cards you’re dealt, but how you play them.’ ”

Surgery is planned for Monday, but as she walked across Bojangles’ Coliseum stage Tuesday, it was the furthest thing from her mind. In a yellow dress and a black gown, she was the very image of joy. “All the teachers and faculty at my school and all the nurses and doctors, they went above and beyond to make it possible for me to go to graduation,” she says.

A rare condition

Stathopoulos’ restrictive lung disease reduces her lung volume and makes breathing more difficult.

A collapsed lung can heal itself. That’s what doctors had been hoping, but she learned Wednesday that she’ll need next week’s surgery.

Stathopoulos is also the only person in North Carolina with Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome. She was born with the rare condition. It affects the joints of the body and interferes with their movement, said Dr. Cynthia Powell, associate professor of pediatrics at UNC Chapel Hill.

“It also involves the jaw and causes a very small mouth,” Powell said.

Stathopoulos’ muscles and bones are affected from head to toe. Presbyterian’s Hemby Children’s Hospital has been the site of about a dozen of her surgeries, her first at just six months of age. Over the years, her surgeries have included her legs, feet, hands, fingers, spine and more.

For the first six or seven years of her life, she was in casts. Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome affects people’s bodies differently, and it affects Stathopoulos’ more than most, her father says. She is tiny, weighing just 50 to 55 pounds.

A determined student

Despite her condition, Stathopoulos successfully completed her public school career, attending McKee Elementary, Jay M. Robinson Middle and Providence High, winning praise along the way.

Annie McCanless, her AP Government teacher, lauded Stathopoulos’ intelligence and creativity.

“She understood politics and loved to debate,” she says. “She’s a very intelligent person who is really going to go somewhere.”

Her determination can be seen in her high school achievements, too, including membership in the National Honor Society and the student council executive board.

The constant presence of her family has helped. Her mother, Regina Stathopoulos, has slept in Julia’s hospital room every night since Julia’s lung first collapsed May 21.

And her three siblings – Nicholas, 13; John, 20; and Christina, 22 – have been there from day one, Julia says.

As Julia has endured, so have her siblings, says her father, Harry Stathopoulos.

“They had to grow up early because they had to watch her suffer,” he said. “They were strong for Julia.”

Her next steps

A lifetime around medicine has sparked Stathopoulos’ interest in biology or pre-med studies, which she will pursue when she attends Furman University this fall on a merit scholarship worth $100,000 over four years. “I started paying attention to what the doctors were saying, so I grew interested in the medical field,” she says. “I want to work with children.”

As she heads to college, she leaves behind a proud community.

Father Michael Varvarelis, her priest at Charlotte’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, admires her spirit.

“I remember the first Christmas pageant we had,” he says. “She held the star, and I thought ‘How perfect that the star child be holding the star.’ ”

She radiates happiness, he says. “She deals with life in the best way and counts her blessings. I think if you pay attention to this individual, we can have a better world.”

McNeill: 704-358-5298
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