TARPON SPRINGS — As a survivor of two heart transplants, Stavroula Zoi "Stacey" Karavokiros personifies perseverance.
Next week, that perseverance will be on display for the world to see when she is the dove bearer in Tarpon Springs' 105th Epiphany celebration.
"She seems very devoted and she never gives up, and that's the same for the whole family. They don't give up," said Katie Faklis, St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral's choir director since 1971.
Each year, Faklis selects a young, unmarried, academically successful young woman who is an active member of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral's church and choir to carry and release a white dove over Spring Bayou.
"It's an honor for me to be the dove bearer," said Karavokiros, whose selection was announced last week. "I went up to the priest afterwards and told him how much I appreciated being selected. I kissed his hand and I started crying."
Tarpon Springs is home to one of the largest Epiphany celebrations in the world, with the blessing and throwing of the cross into the bayou a main attraction. Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
This year's event will take place Thursday.
After a morning church service, Karavokiros will lead a procession to the bayou carrying the white dove, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit.
Once the dove is released, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios will toss a hand-made wooden cross into the water, where 78 boys will attempt to retrieve it. Capturing the cross is said to bring a life of favor from God.
Given the name Stavroula Zoi Karavokiros at birth in Kalymnos, Greece, she was born with a heart that had only one chamber. Doctors in Athens told her mother, Irene, to let her firstborn die. Instead, Irene Karavokiros took her to London for her first open-heart surgery. There would be more surgeries.
At 12, Karavokiros came to the United States and St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital for a heart transplant. After the surgery, she returned to Greece and things were fine until she was 15.
"I fainted twice while in Athens," she said. "Doctors said I needed another heart because the one I had wasn't functioning and my body was rejecting my heart. The doctors in Greece gave me the paperwork to come to the United States to basically get well."
On Aug. 27, 2005, Karavokiros arrived back in the United States and was immediately taken to All Children's Hospital.
"I couldn't breathe on my own. I needed oxygen," she said. "After two and half days on the list for a heart transplant, I got a heart and my second transplant on Sept. 1, 2005."
Irene Karavokiros moved Stacey and her four younger children to Tarpon Springs, where there was family support. Her husband remains in Greece, where he runs a rock quarry business.
Stacey Karavokiros attended Tarpon Springs High School. In 2008, she was hospitalized the last two months of her senior year because her body was rejecting the heart. That same year, doctors allowed her to attend her graduation. Too weak to walk, Stacey rode a golf cart across the football field to receive her diploma.
She recovered from that episode and is in her third year at the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. She is seeking an associate's degree in health care informatics.
She takes 13 pills three times a day to make sure that the heart and her body are in sync.
"It's a blessing to be in Tarpon Springs," she said. "My aunts are here and we have help here to go around and try and find a specific hospital. We found out about All Children's from a cousin. It's perfect and I wouldn't change it."
Karavokiros started singing in the choir about three years ago. She sings soprano.
"I like the language and it reminds me of home and when I was singing with my grandmother," Karavokiros said. "I enjoy singing in the choir, and that's very important. And the hymns that we sing remind me of when I was in Greece."
A bit nervous about having to carry the dove, Karavokiros said she's more nervous at having to do interviews in front of cameras. But like the heart transplants and her health, she said she will approach the event knowing that she is blessed.
"So far I've been doing great," Karavokiros said. "We just go step by step."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.