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Woman, pet reunited after Katrina

ALEDO, Texas — Cheryl Landry sobbed as she tied Napi to a pole on the hospital's roof and repeatedly told her little dog goodbye.

She wrote two cell phone numbers on a white hospital band and secured it around the dog's neck.

"Napi Witland belongs to Cheryl Landry, RN," it read.

Then Landry boarded a boat with her husband and daughter and, after four days of dealing with death and despair, sped away from New Orleans' Lindy Boggs Medical Center — and her beloved 2-year-old pug.

Anesthesiologist James Riopelle, armed with a stash of morphine, had told his co-workers at the hospital that he would stay behind and take care of about 65 pets, including a couple of guinea pigs, for as long as it was safe.

If it became necessary, he would euthanize the animals rather than let them drown in the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in the hospital.

"I'm thinking that Napi was dead," Landry said. "I thought they had euthanized her."

But then she got a phone call she thought would never come: Napi was alive and well in the small town of Aledo, Texas, 20 miles west of Fort Worth.

On Tuesday, in a reunion that brought bystanders to tears, Napi finally — after three long weeks — found her way back into Landry's arms.

As the storm approached New Orleans on Aug. 28, Cheryl Landry persuaded her usually storm-stubborn husband, Larry, to ride it out at the hospital, where she worked as a nurse and her daughter worked as a medical secretary.

Napi went too, joining dozens of other pets brought there by the hospital staff and patients.

After Katrina struck — and the power went out and the water began to rise — things went from bad to horrific at Lindy Boggs. Over the next few days, the hospital staff worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat to care for patients, fanning them with cardboard boxes and rationing food, water and medicine.

Many patients died. At one point, Larry Landry helped carry the bodies through the dark building to a makeshift morgue on the second floor.

"What we saw in the hospital was not normal," Cheryl Landry said. "There was nothing that we could do to care for these people. We did the best that we could with what we had."

Several days later, a fleet of boats finally arrived to begin evacuating patients and staff.

That's when Cheryl Landry said she was told she could not take Napi.

"I didn't want to leave without my dog," she said. "The hospital administrator came and said, 'You can't. You have to leave her.' I couldn't fathom the idea of leaving her, that was like my child."

Landry said she tried to sneak Napi out in a bag. Her husband, feeling his wife's desperation, begged a hospital security guard to try to save their dog. The guard said he couldn't.

"Meanwhile, she (Cheryl) is just going hysterical," Larry Landry said.

Cheryl Landry took Napi up to the roof with the other workers' pets, where a dog run had been created, tied her down and sobbed.

"They were begging me to hurry up. My daughter grabbed my hand and told me to come on."

After evacuating, the family ended up in Baltimore, where Cheryl Landry's family lives.

Napi never left her thoughts.

"I cried from that point on," Landry said. "All I could think about was the things she used to do — you know, peep around the corner at me. Everywhere I move, all I hear is her little feet clicking."

She didn't know that Tenet Healthcare Corp., which owns Lindy Boggs Medical Center, had arranged to have helicopters and boats evacuate the workers' pets from the hospital.

The animals were taken to Slidell, La., and then bused to an airport in Hattiesburg, Miss.

There, four people from the Aledo Vet Clinic — Kent Glenn, Janine Theal, C.J. Bishop and Susan Hill — set up a triage center, where they treated the pets, which for the most part were mostly just hungry and dehydrated.

The team then drove the animals to Texas where they were placed with foster families.

"It's a blessing to give these people back their pets," Theal said. "For some, it's the one thing they have left."

Mary Lou Finsterwald, a second-grade teacher in Aledo and animal lover, took Napi home and instantly fell in love.

"She is a wonderful dog," Finsterwald said.

The next day, Finsterwald called the numbers on the hospital band around Napi's neck.

Landry was sitting on her sister's porch in Baltimore when the phone rang.

"Mary Lou introduced herself and asked me if I had a dog," Landry recalled. "I said, 'Yes,' and she said, "Well, I have Napi.'

"I hollered!"

The Landrys said Finsterwald told her how Napi had been rescued and assured them that she was fine.

"That was the greatest moment of our lives," Larry Landry said. "She said, 'Do what you have to do, take your time, she'll be ready when y'all are ready for her.' "

Landry said that she and her husband began making arrangements to drive to Texas to get Napi.

On Sunday, after deciding they couldn't wait any longer, they loaded up and "put the pedal to the metal," Cheryl Landry said.

Tuesday morning, the couple walked into the Aledo Vet Clinic, where they had agreed to meet Finsterwald. They cried and hugged and pumped the hands of the staff who were instrumental in bringing their family back together.

Then, Finsterwald walked in carrying their dog.

"Napi! Napi!" the Landrys cried, scooping up their pet. Customers in the waiting room began wiping away tears.

Napi began crawling all over the Landrys and quickly began making up for three weeks of lost kisses.

"It's a definite miracle," Cheryl Landry said. " My thoughts were that I would never see her again."

After Finsterwald gave them a scrapbook filled with photos of Napi taken over the last few weeks and that now-tattered hospital band, the couple got on the road with Napi and pointed their car toward New Orleans.

They plan to try to return home to retrieve photos and some valuables before heading back to Maryland to start a new life.

"This is the grand finale right here," Larry Landry said. "Thank you."


E-mail: mjmcdonald@star-telegram.com