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Gentle Spirit: Back home, Jones cares for her ailing father

Kristen Ashburn for Newsweek

Gentle Spirit: Back home, Jones cares for her ailing father

Ruby Jones
New Orleans

As Katrina raged, this nurse whispered comfort to her dying patients.

Ruby Jones's kids were aghast at their mother's decision. As Hurricane Katrina churned menacingly toward New Orleans last August, they had begged her to forsake her Sunday nursing shift at Lindy Boggs Medical Center and evacuate the city. "Don't try to be Superwoman," they told her. But Jones, 67, chose to ride out the storm with her eight frail and dying patients in the hospice unit. "I didn't want to shirk my responsibility knowing there was a hurricane coming," she says. On Monday, as raging winds shattered the hospital's windows and burst open doors, she gently whispered in her patients' ears, "We are here with you, and we aren't going to leave." By Tuesday, the situation had turned dire; the power was out, the water supply was choked off and the hospital was flooding. Still, amid the mounting mayhem, Jones continued to tend to her flock—bathing them, feeding them, dressing their wounds. When aid arrived on Wednesday, she helped evacuate them, though three died before they could be rescued. She finally left on Thursday, hungry and parched, but having kept her promise to stay at her patients' side until the very end.

At once steely and soothing, with a tight bun of silvery hair and impeccably pressed scrubs, Jones was a tireless source of succor for the storm's most vulnerable victims. She doesn't consider her work especially commendable; quite simply, she says, it was her job—one she has carried out with boundless compassion for 45 years. Yet Jones was a model of caregiving at a time when some health-care workers abandoned their posts and others cracked under pressure. To those who observed Jones during Katrina's cha-otic aftermath, she seemed to exude only calm purposefulness. "No matter how austere the conditions became, she was still on the situation to make sure things were done right," recalls orderly Don Cilurso. "If something wasn't up to her standards, she would point it out even though it was getting harder and harder to maintain that standard of care."

When Jones arrived with other evacuees at the New Orleans airport, she picked up where she'd left off. Rather than join the throngs desperate to catch flights out of the city, she went looking for her patients. The scene was anarchic—a dark, stifling cavern packed with an agitated crowd and reverberating with shouts and moans. Jones eventually found two of her patients lying listlessly among the luggage carousels and began caring for them with what little food and cleaning supplies she could scrounge up. She also ran into her aunt and uncle—both of whom were ill—and tended to them as well. With the military's triage operation overwhelmed, she soon took on even more of the infirm. Though she'd asked authorities to be evacuated with her hospice patients, she eventually became separated from them. So at the end of the week, she departed with her aunt and uncle for Atlanta, where she continued to care for her uncle until he died several weeks later.

Jones traces her devotion to nursing back to her upbringing in rural Louisiana. A sickly child, she often ended up in the hospital. Because of the care she received there, she found it a comforting place. After high school, she attended Dillard University in New Orleans. Upon graduating, she got married and slowly pursued her nursing license while also starting a family. When she was in nursing school, she practiced her clinical procedures on her beloved grandfather, who was diabetic. No matter how painfully she poked and prodded him, "he would compliment me to the highest," says Jones. "He called me 'nurse' from the first day." His confidence made her believe in herself.

Jones has also been nourished by faith. During the most harrowing moments of Katrina's aftermath, she often recited Scripture in her head for guidance and strength. Among the historical figures she most admires: Mother Teresa, whose care for the wretched inspired her profoundly. These days, Jones is tending to her ailing 93-year-old father. She's staying next to him in the other half of the home where she lived as a girl (her own house was severely flooded after the hurricane). Though Lindy Boggs Medical Center hasn't reopened, she's still working on Sundays for the same hospice-care company. Given the city's heartbreaking state, Jones wonders how long she can endure living there and is considering moving at some point to Atlanta. But she would undoubtedly have a hard time leaving her patients behind. "We are like a family at the end," she says. "You don't just abandon them." Those Katrina survivors on whom she laid her healing hands are surely grateful that she upheld that credo.

—Catharine Skipp and Arian Campo-Flores