St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana -- With Hurricane Katrina swirling toward New Orleans, most of the disabled and elderly residents at St. Bernard Manor in Meraux had been scooped up by their families and taken to higher ground.
Kimberly Cook, a 24-year-old paraplegic with cerebral palsy, had been in a wheelchair all her life, but never felt so helpless.
With her parents deceased, she placed a desperate call to the nurse's aide who looked in on her every day. Patricia Williams had for a year been bathing and dressing Cook and tending to a hundred other details. Now "Miss Pat" was about to become a lifeline as well.
Katrina's devastation spawned many stories of courage and generosity, but Williams and Cook overcame more than most. The two women -- one who could barely move, the other who refused to leave -- fled coursing floodwaters, lost all of their possessions and bounced from one shelter to the next. Ultimately, their journey drew them closer, transforming them from nurse and patient into companions who are rebuilding their lives together.
The two received the first "No Limits Award" from the United Cerebral Palsy in Washington on Wednesday night.
"These were two strong women faced with an incredibly horrible situation," said the Rev. Sam Maranto, a Baton Rouge Redemptorist priest who put the women up at his rectory for nearly four months. "They had faith in themselves and love and confidence in one another. Each was able to help the other one make this journey out of the destruction that was their lives and make a new start."
Before Katrina, Williams filled the 3 to 11 p.m. slot in the daily nursing rotation at Cook's assisted living apartment. They had grown close over a year of daily visits, Williams filling a void left by Cook's recently deceased parents. It hardly mattered, they say, that Cook is white and Williams is black.
"We're not related, but we might as well be, right, Mama?" Cook said, looking over to Williams during an interview. "We're like family. The only thing separating us is the color of our skin and that don't mean jack."
"That's right, baby," Williams assured.
When she got the call from Cook the day before the storm, she didn't hesitate. The area floods even in a heavy rain. Both knew it was no place to be with a killer storm bearing down.
Williams and her two daughters raced to Cook's apartment, packed a bag of clothes and a teddy bear and loaded her into the car. The electric wheelchair didn't fit, so it stayed behind.
Williams figured they would be safe at her house in the Lower 9th Ward. But her husband, Harold Foy Sr., wasn't so sure. He and his wife could climb up on the roof if the waters came, but what about Cook? They went to their daughter's house in the 7th Ward instead.
Foy was right. Their 9th Ward home, like those of all their neighbors, flooded past the rafters.
"Thank God you were with me," Williams said to Cook. "I would have stayed there and then it would have been, oh, Lord . ."
The water found them anyway, at Williams' daughter's house.
When it rose around Cook's bed, Williams' son-in-law, Derek, picked her up and waded through chest-deep water to a nearby house. They thought they would be safe in a building with a second floor. They were wrong.
The water rose up around their knees.
"It's like it was chasing us," Cook said.
The family yelled to passing helicopters and boats until a Coast Guard vessel came by. They lifted Cook through a second-story window on a blanket.
As the boat motored away, Williams spotted two infants floating in an inflated plastic swimming pool, bobbing like a toy in a bathtub. No parents were in sight.
The captain said he would come back for them, but Williams insisted they stop. The huddled evacuees added two terrified babies to their circle.
The group was dropped at what passed for high ground in post-Katrina New Orleans: a highway overpass at Elysian Fields Avenue. With only cookies to eat, they waited 10 hours as they contemplated their flooded homes and uncertain futures.
An Army truck finally hauled them off to the Superdome, which was quickly filling with flood victims from all over New Orleans. Cook was told to go around back to a makeshift medical clinic. Williams had a decision to make: stay with Cook or go into the Dome with her own family. It wouldn't be the last time she put the well-being of her patient over her own.
"I said I wasn't leaving her," Williams said. "They would have put her in a nursing home. I told (my family) I would see them later."
It would be three months before she would.
The two women waited in the back of the truck for two hours before finally being taken to Kenner. They were dropped under a bridge.
Eventually, Williams persuaded an ambulance driver to take them the hour north to Baton Rouge. They were dropped at the field house at Louisiana State University, where thousands of other New Orleanians had taken shelter. Cook was worried. Now that she was out of danger, would Williams leave to find her own family?
Cook had spotted another nurse pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. As soon as the nurse collected her disaster money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she left the woman behind.
"She dropped the lady like an old pair of shoes," Cook said. "I looked at Miss Pat and said that could never happen to us, could it? She said, 'Of course not, baby.' "
"I honestly believe that it's because of her that I'm alive right now," Cook said, emotion choking her voice.
They had been at the LSU field house for a week when the man who would become their savior happened by. Maranto said he was struck by Cook right away.
"It was her cheerfulness that seemed strange to me," he said. "It wasn't what I would have expected for someone who had just escaped a disaster and lost everything."
After that, he came by regularly, chatting about church history and quizzing Cook on the Italian phrases she gleaned from a textbook he had given her. But the respite wouldn't last.
The women were told they were being moved to another shelter in Lake Charles. The priest grimaced. He had seen another cerebral palsy patient "stuffed into a van like a sausage." He pressed his card into Cook's hand and told her to call if they ran into trouble.
No sooner had they arrived in Lake Charles than they were told they would be shipped to Texas the next day. They both thought of what Maranto had said.
"We looked at one another and said, 'Oh please, no more traveling. We've had enough,' " Cook said. "We dug through our clothes, pulled apart everything, looking for his card."
With a borrowed SUV, the priest and a friend pulled up that afternoon to take them back to Baton Rouge. He set up an apartment in the back of the St. Gerard Majella church rectory.
Eventually, Williams tracked down her husband, who had ended up in New Mexico. He made his way to north Baton Rouge and the three of them settled into the makeshift apartment.
As the days wore on, it became clear that there would be no returning to New Orleans. The city where both women had been born had become an inhospitable place even for people without serious medical conditions. They started talking about finding a place together.
Maranto, a man with a fat Rolodex and neighborhood sources that would make a gossip columnist envious, once again came through. He heard that a tidy two-bedroom, one-bathroom house nearby was about to go on the market. He had known the owner, Josie Giammerse, since he was a boy. When she died, he asked her daughters about selling.
Cook and Williams didn't have much. Between them they scraped together $54,000. With real estate prices in Baton Rouge soaring with the influx of evacuees, the priest figured the house would be beyond their means. He was stunned when he heard the asking price: $54,000.
Maranto dug into a disaster fund set up by the Redemptorist Order for the closing costs and it appeared the two women's long journey was about to end.
They had hoped to move in by Christmas, but there was a last-minute glitch with the legal papers. Maranto found a lawyer to donate his time to straighten out the problem.
They moved in Dec. 22. When they swung open the front door, they found a fully furnished home, complete with a Christmas tree and presents courtesy of Josie Giammerse's family.
Today, Williams said people ask her why she didn't just leave Cook behind. Surely the evacuation would have gone more smoothly and she wouldn't have been separated from her own family. But that's just it, she tells them.
"It was just like she was my child. I don't look at her and say, 'Oh, that's my patient.' It was my problem and I'm glad today I did it," Williams said. "If I hadn't, I would have lived the rest of my life knowing I was only 10 minutes away from her and I didn't do anything. After all the hardships we went through, it is worth it knowing that I didn't leave her.