LAWRENCE — Heather Sapienza died yesterday, six weeks after her husband was fired from his public works job for refusing to return from the unpaid leave he took to care for her at home. She was 40.
Her death ends a 19-month fight against cancer during which she adopted a chihuahua named Cooper, took a round-trip drive to the Grand Canyon with her husband, attended a Red Sox game and, with her family, created a Facebook group that allowed her to tell the story of her last year and a half. The group, called Kick’n A$$, has 646 members.
“She did everything she wanted to do,” her husband, Tom Sapienza, said yesterday. “Everything she did was to prove to people that life is livable, enjoyable, even though life is tough.”
One of the tough moments came the Monday after Thanksgiving, when a messenger delivered a pink slip signed by Mayor William Lantigua to the couple’s Young Avenue townhouse, ending Tom’s eight-year job driving plows and maintaining Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Tom Sapienza, 41, had been on unpaid leave since August, after running through two months of vacation and sick time. After extending the leave several times, Public Works Commissioner John Isensee said he advised Lantigua that he feared there would be “no end in sight” to the leaves and said he could not continue filling the job with temporary replacements.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 26, the same day Tom Sapienza was fired, former state Rep. Jose Santiago was given a temporary appointment to a DPW laborer’s job similar to the one Sapienza held. Sapienza earned $18 an hour; Santiago, who has no public works certifications, earns $15 an hour.
Santiago, an on-again-off-again political ally of Lantigua’s, had been unemployed. He tried to regain his statehouse seat in November, but won just 15 percent of the vote against incumbent Marcos Devers.