By
Dateline NBC
updated 3/25/2005 7:36:57 PM ET 2005-03-26T00:36:57

There is almost nothing a mother won't do to save her child. This is the story of a child who saved her mother -- a young woman who'd found love, and success, but somehow managed to lose herself. Her name is Nadine Purdy, and at one point in her life she'd sunk so low, she was actually living underground, beneath the streets of New York City. How she fell so far is an amazing story, but how she rose again is an even better one.  

Look beyond the towering Empire State Building and Midtown, go south past the low rooftops of residential neighborhoods, and then down to the buses, cabs and cars darting through downtown Manhattan. There on the traffic island stood a solitary figure unnoticed by New York's passing parade.

She was a woman lost and forgotten, lost in an underground world. In the late 1980s, early 90s, she was making millions running one of New York's trendiest fashion boutiques. Her rise was fast, but her fall into the "high" life was even faster.

Nadine Purdy: “Drugs. It can take anybody over. I don't care if you're the President of the United States. Anybody who's an addict goes into active addiction will eventually hit bottom. And I did.”

But this is much more than a story about the power of drugs. It's a story of rebirth, about the power of the human spirit and the power of love. From a sister's refusal to give up, to a stranger's leap of faith, to a child restoring hope.

Nadine Purdy's remarkable journey started back in the 1960s in upscale Greenwich, Conn, -- but on the wrong side of the tracks. It was a rough childhood, living in the projects. Nadine's mother, at the age of 20, abandoned the family and later turned to drugs and, briefly, prostitution.

Nadine: “I was never happy as a child. I didn't really have a childhood. I didn't have a family really at all.”

The past left its scars, but it also made Nadine a survivor, something she would later come to rely on. Time and time again. After high school, she moved to New York, eking out a living selling scarves in downtown flea markets. The work was grueling.

Nadine: “I was out in the bitter cold, in the snow, in the rain, working. I mean, I worked seven days a week.”

And she was no longer alone. At 19, she married and started a family with Japanese hairdresser Toru Ikegami. Together, they built up their flea market business, enough so that in 1987, they bought their own boutique in New York's trendy Soho district.

Named "Yoshi," which means beautiful in Japanese, the store's rise was meteoric, according to Rene Chun, the man who noticed Nadine, a journalist who would come to write about her.

Out of the shoebox-sized store came some very big rewards, a sprawling 4,000-square foot Soho loft with a Jacuzzi and a swirling lifestyle to match; a Lexus, fancy dinners, and first-class tickets to the runways of Paris and Milan.

She not only got the lifestyle but the family she had always dreamed of. Her first son, also named Yoshi, was born when Nadine was only 21. By age 26, she had three sons, somehow managing to juggle it all.

But then everything started to unravel, first the business, then the marriage. Both dissolved under the weight of an excessive and addictive lifestyle. Nadine says she and her husband both started using drugs – cocaine.

Although Toru declined comment on allegations of drug use, he and Nadine agree that by 1992, both their once-prosperous business and their once-picture perfect marriage were failures.

Nadine: “I always thought that if I made something of myself, or I made a lot of money, that I'd be happy. But deep down inside, I was really empty.”

Then one day, in front of their middle son, Nadine says tensions between her and her husband turned to rage, Although Toru denies the incident ever happened.

Nadine: “He was smashing my head on the floor, and I pulled out a knife. And my son was standing there, and I just looked and I said, 'My God,’ you know?”

Lisa Rudolph: “How old was he at that time?”

Nadine: “Five.”

Rudolph: “And what did he say to you when you saw him?”

Nadine: “He just screamed, 'Mom! Don't. Don't kill Dad.' And I lost it.”

Upset, confused and afraid of being trapped in the kind of dysfunctional family of her youth, in 1993, Nadine, then 29, did what her own mother had done to her. She walked out on her husband and three young children.

Rudolph: “Basically, you ran away from your problems. Not only your husband, but your children.”

Nadine: “Yeah, I was so angry and so full of pain that I couldn't deal with it. I used to pray every day, 'Please God, get me out of this. Please help me fix this. Please.' You know, I would cry every day for my kids.”

For Nadine Purdy, a rising star in the fashion world in the early 1990s, the fall was fast the losses devastating. The business, the luxurious lifestyle and, most painful of all, her three sons. It was all gone because of one thing.

Nadine:  “I couldn't live a normal life because the drugs had taken control. I needed the drugs to live.”

But it no longer just cocaine. Nadine told us back when we first met her that she had found something much stronger.

Nadine: “I'm a heroin addict. And I need heroin to get me through the day.”

Nadine says a boyfriend introduced her to heroin. The first time, it made her sick; the next, it made her forget her problems.

Nadine: “I started doing drugs because they made me feel good. And I used the drugs to mask my feelings.”

Feelings about her children whom she missed terribly and, early on, secretly found ways to see. Some days she would simply watch them from afar. Others, when Toru left for work, the nanny let her walk the boys to school.

Nadine: “They held onto me. They didn't want me to leave. They wanted to come live with me.”

But as her heroin addiction spiraled out of control, even those brief visits ended.

Rudolph: “As a mother, I think I would have fought and I would have done whatever I had to do. I would've been there with my children.”

Nadine: “I tried to do that, but, emotionally, I wasn't strong enough.”

At her worst, Nadine told us back in 1997, she was shooting up every hour, in what would become a $500-a-day habit financed by drug-dealing, petty theft and, just like her mother years before, prostitution .

Nadine: “Really I shouldn't be here. You know I've OD'd several times. I've been stabbed up. There were just so many times that I should have been dead.”

The free-fall into heavy drugs was especially hard on Nadine's younger sister, Corrine, who loved her, looked up to her and followed her into the flea market business. Corrine's unconditional love would be tested over and over again, but, inevitably, her devotion came at a price.

Corinne Purdy: “She would climb through my window. Things would disappear out of my apartment.”

Rudolph: “She would steal things from you?”

Corinne: “Yeah. Stupid things. She would take the TV antenna. It was still in the box, so that she could sell it for maybe five dollars.”

One day, Nadine showed up at her sister's door, barely recognizable after one of her prostitution encounters turned brutal.

Corinne: “And she was so beat up. And I pulled her inside. And I said, 'Listen, you don't ever have to go back there again. You can stay here.'”

Rudolph: “What did you think would eventually happen to your sister?”

Corinne: “That she would die.”

Fearing for her sister's safety and hoping to control her, Corrine tried something drastic, if misguided. She helped support Nadine's drug habit.

Corinne: “I would take her to go and get it.”

Rudolph: “So you would go with her on drug buys?”

Corinne: “Uh-huh. And I would give her money for it.”

Rudolph: “So you thought, 'I'll just do whatever it takes?'”

Corinne: “Well I knew she had to have it. She wasn't going to detox in my apartment and sweat it out and suffer through it. I mean, I couldn't watch my sister go through pain like that.”

And she couldn't stop Nadine from running back to her drug world.

Rudolph: “You think she felt ashamed around you?”

Corinne: “Yes I do. And I think that the people that she surrounded herself with were people who accepted her the way that she was, people that just helped her to kill her pain.”

Pain that became most unbearable on her children's birthdays. One time, she took us to where she once spent her oldest son's birthday, a crack den. She says she woke up with a needle in her arm and blood all over the place.

Nadine seemingly had hit rock bottom. But, in some ways, it was about to get even more desperate than her life on the streets. A drug-pusher boyfriend took her to join a band of drug addicts, descending under an iron plate, literally into the bowels of New York City.

They went down 13 metal steps, then around and around a grimy concrete staircase, finally winding up here, next to the subway tracks, some 60 feet below ground. Subway riders, lost in the daily papers or their own thoughts, were completely oblivious to this underground world, Nadine's world, in the mid-1990s.

It was a subterranean home -- whose "tenants" allowed our TV cameras inside for the first time to see the place they nicknamed "the condo." In reality, it was a subway fire exit, an emergency escape. But for Nadine and the others, who some call "mole people" it was a dead end.

Down there, she was just a few blocks and a world away from her old life. Instead of a bathroom with a Jacuzzi, the subway tracks were her toilet. The kitchen, whatever they could beg, borrow, or steal. And a soot-filled platform, right next to the roaring trains was her bedroom.

In these dark and depressing surroundings, Nadine would often wonder about something else just a few blocks away-- the children she'd left behind three years before. Was her oldest still crazy about chess? Would she ever see her middle son's devilish smile again? Was her youngest boy calling another woman mom?

But even the love for her children could not overcome the pull of life underground. Ironically, it was here amidst this squalor and her fellow drug addicts that Nadine would find the steppingstone to a new life.

The opportunity, a chance to save herself, grew out of reporter Rene Chun's intstinct for a good story, Nadine's story.

Rene: “First meeting she didn't show. Second meeting she didn't show. And then the third one she did. She was obviously strung out. She was nodding off.”

But from that frustrating start three months later, December 1996, Came the profile of heroin addicted mole lady Nadine Purdy in the New York Times.

Rene: “When the story came out, she had no idea. Someone stopped her. She was turning tricks on Third Avenue.”

Nadine: “This man stops me on the street and says, 'What a wonderful story.' And I said, 'What?'”

The staff at a rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania, the Caron Foundation, was also moved by her story and offered to treat her, completely free of charge.

Rene Chun: “She was saying, 'Well, maybe tomorrow, well no, maybe the day after tomorrow.' And I said, 'Look Nadine, it's either now or never. You're either going to take this or you're not.'”

Nadine did take it, but, first, went for one last high in this crack den. As Rene and a car from the Caron foundation waited outside, she told a drug dealer that she had second thoughts about getting straight.

Nadine: “He pulled me down the stairs, took the pipe out of my hand, threw it down and said, 'You're going.'”

Rudolph: “What was the ride like?”

Rene: “Tense. I don't think she realized how lucky she was. She was just thinking about, 'Four hours from now, I need to get high again.'”

When she arrived at Caron, she was still strung out. But the challenges of her life underground were nothing compared to what she faced at rehab. No methadone drugs were allowed to help ease junkies off their addictions. Nadine would have to kick heroin cold turkey.

Nadine: “I didn't sleep one hour for 10 days. It was a really horrible, hard experience. And I didn't think I was going to make it.”

But she did, slowly battling her drug cravings in a traditional 12-step recovery program, with intensive therapy. Her greatest motivation was 150 miles away in New York: three little boys she had abandoned four years earlier and now wanted back in her life, the sons who had no idea if their mother was alive or dead.

Nadine: “Last time I saw my son, he said to me, 'Mom, Dad told me that you're sick in the brain. Are you going to die?'”

Rudolph: ‘You walked out on your children once and did some pretty terrible things. Do you think you deserve to be in their lives to have custody of them?”

Nadine: “Yes I do. I didn't leave because I wanted to. I left because I had to. I thought that it was in their best interest for me to go.”

Toru Ikegami, who divorced Nadine and won custody of the boys, did not want to be interviewed on-camera. But, off-camera, he told us back then that he was so ashamed of his ex-wife, he refused to let his sons have any contact with her, even mention her name. It was all in an effort he said to protect them from being hurt more than they already were.

But a family court judge felt differently about Nadine's parental rights considering the progress she'd made. After six months of rehab, she was off drugs, on her own and holding down a job. The judge granted limited visitation with her boys, then ages 6, 8 and 11.

Rudolph: ”You're about to see your kids. Tell me what you're feeling inside right now.”

Nadine: “I think I'm feeling a lot of things. One minute I'm excited. The next minute I'm scared. Are they going to be happy to see me? You know, how emotional it's going to be.”

It was very emotional in the office of the kids' court-appointed lawyer.

Nadine: “I actually, I heard them coming up through the elevator. They were like fighting over who was going to come out of the elevator first. And they just all ran out and they were like – ‘Mom!’"

A social worker, who monitored the visit and took pictures, said the boys seemed just as happy to see their mother.

Nadine: “It was like we were a family again.”

For Nadine, the most emotional moment came at the end of their session.

Nadine: “The meeting was so short, an hour and a half, and then I would have to leave. It was really painful. I know in their minds, especially in my oldest son's mind, is that my mom is back and I want to be with my mom.”

That visit, in 1997, gave Nadine hope for the future. By then, she already had more than her share of heartbreak and self-destruction.

But the renewed hope from the reunion with her boys didn't last long. Within months, after Nadine missed an important court date, the visits with her sons were cut off.

Nadine: “I don't go to their plays and I don't know what they're doing in school, and I'm not helping them with their homework. And I mean, that's something that's like very important to me.”

But as gut-wrenching as that was, Nadine tried to carry on. She was working to stay clean and build a new life for herself, as always, with the love and support of her devoted younger sister.

Corinne: “Nadine was my inspiration and I aspired to be like her. So I had so much belief and faith and confidence in her. And I just wanted her to be the person that I idolized.”

By now, Corrine had succeeded at what her sister and mentor did before drugs got in the way. Corrine also had parlayed a flea market business into her own clothing store, "Purdy Girl," in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. And when Nadine returned from rehab in the summer of 1997 and became her business partner, it was Corrine's dream come true.

Corinne: “She was smart, she had all the right input, and we were working great together.”

Nadine was also working to make amends to her estranged sons, but to no avail. Birthday cards and gifts she sent were returned unopened.

Rudolph: “The last time you called, your son hung up on you.”

Nadine: “Uh-huh. And the time before that, all three of them said that they never wanted to speak to me again.”

Cut off from her boys, overwhelmed by business pressures and her own weaknesses, it wasn't long before Nadine's demons were back.

In the summer of 1998, one year after getting out of rehab, Nadine went on a 10-day drug binge.

Nadine: “This was the roughest thing that I went through. Because I'd been, I'd been successful at staying clean, and then I totally threw it all away.”

As usual, her sister came to her rescue. After a frantic search, she found Nadine in an old haunt, a crack den, and brought her back to her apartment. Again she resorted to drastic measures.

Corinne: “I pushed the couch in front of the door and I said, ‘You're not leaving.’"

Rudolph: “You physically barricaded the door?”

Corinne: “I physically barricaded the door, and I jumped up on top of the sofa. And I said, ‘If you think that you're going to get out of this apartment, then there's going to have to be some violence in this apartment first.’”

But ultimately, neither the desperate measures nor Corrine's undying love proved any match for the overwhelming power of heroin addiction. By 2001, Nadine had become a hard-core junkie again, only this time, she and a boyfriend had better accommodations -- above ground. In fact, they were "working" out of upscale Manhattan hotels.

Nadine: “We were dealing drugs to support our habit and to pay for the hotels that we were staying in.”

On May 8, 2001, acting on a tip, Det. Danny Romano and nearly a dozen police officers from the New York City narcotics unit descended on room 1422 at this midtown hotel -- bursting into the room, NYPD-style, with overwhelming manpower, striking lightning-fast.

Det. Danny Romano: “Once you go through that door, it's hysteria. It's screaming. Everybody's loud, ‘Get down, get down, police, get down.’ Because you want to take whoever's in there off-guard.”

Nadine and her boyfriend were quickly handcuffed and separated. Even Hollywood couldn't have dreamed up this next twist.

Romano: “Once we took them into the hallway, I heard her say something very specific.”

Rudolph: “What did she say?”

Romano: ”’I can't believe it. One day I'm on TV, and now, the next day, I'm going to jail.’”

It was then that Det. Romano realized he had seen Nadine on Dateline.

Romano: “I remember there being a woman on the show and speaking about heroin and about living underground.”

His instincts told him the boyfriend was the kingpin -- in the drug dealing and in their relationship. He wanted to talk to Nadine privately. Suddenly, something else about her story struck him.

Romano: “So, instantaneously, I started to speak to her in Italian.”

He remembered her fashion-buying trips to Italy. He thought maybe she knew the language.

Romano: “I was telling her, talk to me later. Don't talk now. I know you can't talk in front of this guy now. Because he had leaned over basically and I remember him saying something kinda like, ‘Shut your mouth.’”

Incredibly, Nadine understood. A connection had been made. Det. Romano offered to help her, and a few weeks later, he did, putting in a good word with the prosecutor and the judge. As long as she entered another rehab program and stayed clean, Nadine could plead guilty to a drug misdemeanor. Her boyfriend, who had more serious prior convictions, got four to nine years. Nadine got six months.

In May 2001, eight years after walking out on her children, she began doing hard time at Riker’s Island prison.

Nadine thought what she had been through was as bad as it gets: beaten, overdosed, living underground surrounded by rats. But even she wasn't prepared for her new life on Riker’s Island as a prisoner. It wasn't the heroin withdrawal in prison. that was eased by daily doses of methadone. And she'd already lost her comfortable life, her dignity, and most painful of all, her children.

Now the only thing she had left was gone too: her freedom. Nadine had lost everything, even the one person she could always count on, her sister Corrine.

Corinne: “First thing she did I think was ask for money. And my reaction was, I'm sorry. I'm here working really hard for my money and I'm not sending you anything. So at that point I drew the line. I said, no more. I'm not sending you anything. I'm not helping you. I don't want to know about it. Just deal with it. You know you made your own bed. Now lie in it."

Rudolph:  “And you had never done that before with her?”

Corinne: “Not really. I couldn't help her by doing it for her. I couldn't want it more than she wanted it herself. The way she was living her life was making my life unhealthy whenever she was in it. So I just decided that she wasn't going to be in it anymore.”

It was tough love, finally, from the sister who, years earlier as a last resort, had even given Nadine money for drugs because she couldn't stand to watch her suffer from withdrawal. After so many chances, false starts and outright failures, all Nadine had left now was time, time to reflect on where she had been and where she was going. It was the lowest she had been, but then she found out something that would change her life: She was pregnant.

Nadine was stunned. She was 37, an addict, her body ravaged by years of drug abuse.

Rudolph: “After the initial shock, finding out you were pregnant, what were you like physically at that point?

Nadine:  “Oh my gosh, I was about 98 pounds. I mean, I wasn't menstruating. So, I don't understand how it happened.”

Corrine thought her sister should get an abortion, but Nadine was convinced the baby growing inside her was both literally and figuratively her path to a new life. But she was also taking a big risk. After all, Nadine had been abusing heroin and cocaine for years, including the early stages of her pregnancy.

And she had more reason to worry. Her pregnancy was spent in prison and then at a gritty halfway house, not ideal conditions for the kind of medical care and nutrition leading to a healthy baby.

On January 9, 2002, Nadine went into the delivery room, fearing the worst.

Nadine: “I still had in the back of my head, I hope everything's going to be okay. And she was just perfect. I mean, she just slid right out with a smile on her face.”

If Nadine thought her pregnancy was a miracle, she now had living proof – a healthy baby girl. She named her angel, Isabella Rose. But Nadine's prospects were anything but beautiful.

As a 37-year-old single mother with a newborn, Nadine would need all the guardian angels she could get. She was a recovering drug addict, fresh out of prison, with no job, no money and no home of her own. Corrine let Nadine and Isabella move in with her temporarily and put her sister to work in her store.

Nadine, who once made millions running her own store, worked as a sales clerk for $10 an hour.

After a decade of opportunities lost, Nadine now says she's been clean and sober since May 8, 2001, the day she was busted at that Manhattan hotel. The question, as always, will it last?

For the first time since we began covering her story eight years ago, Nadine does seem different, not only her appearance, but her attitudes. Gone are some old self-destructive beliefs about addiction and blame, and recovery and responsibility.

She works with her sister, now with two thriving Purdy Girl boutiques in Manhattan's West Village. They even began designing their own clothing line in the basement of one of the stores.

Nadine: “She's done so much for me that it's like, I could never repay it. And how I repay it is by doing the right thing and changing my life.”

But Nadine's greatest inspiration is the smallest, Isabella Rose, her miracle baby. Mother and daughter were now in their own apartment, uptown, a long, long way from Nadine's former home underground. That subway hellhole is now closed, under construction. But Nadine was still haunted by a dark reminder of what she lost down there besides herself: her three other children.

Nadine: “Oh, that's my biggest regret. That's really painful and it's hard to think about, you know? I mean, I still have their pictures. I see them as being the same way as I saw them last time. And they're definitely -- they're grown. My oldest son's 19. He's a man.”

Her sons were farther away than ever now. Four years earlier they moved to Japan with their father. Nadine was still hoping to get them back.

Rudolph: “Do you think you deserve that? After everything that's happened?”

Nadine: “Deserve is kind of a, a hard word. I just, maybe I deserve a chance.”

Corinne: “I think it's more a question of whether they deserve it. I think they deserve to see their mother.”

And in Nadine's sober new world, where incredible turns keep coming, there would be another chance, another miracle. In July 2004, after seven years of no contact her middle son, 16-year-old Uichi, was calling from Japan. And once the wall of silence was broken, within days, her other sons, ages 14 and 19, also began talking to her. Relationships were being rebuilt, slowly. Nadine was about to get her chance to make it up to her middle son in a way she never expected. Uichi was reaching out with much more than a phone call. He had a big proposition. Struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity, Uichi was having trouble in his Japanese school. With his father's approval, he was seeking a fresh start in New York. He wanted to come home to his mother.

Nadine was ecstatic and apprehensive.

Rudolph: “It's a beautiful surprise but it's not gonna be easy for you.”

Nadine: ”Oh yeah, I don't expect it to be easy. Definitely not a walk in the park.”

Nadine's ex-husband recently told us he checked out Nadine's progress and feels comfortable that she's found positive ways to cope with stress that will only intensify when she's raising a teenager and a toddler. Now, instead of drugs, Nadine says she turns to AA meetings and her sponsor there, talks to professionals and, of course, her savior, Corrine.

Nadine: “She's there, you know, and that's why I know that I'm going to be able to do this. And if it gets too overwhelming for me, she's the one who's going to step in.”

Corinne: “One of the driving forces, or the reasons behind why I just like was so motivated to keep my sister alive, was so that she could see her kids again, and so that I could see them again.”

And now, one of them was finally coming home. August 20, 2004. Newark Airport. The reunion of Uichi and his mother. A mother who had given up so much was regaining her family, old and new, her sister, as always, at her side.

Corinne: “Everything that I have ever done for my sister has been for this day to happen.”

Nadine: “It's just incredible. I thought this would never happen. And I thought my life would never be complete without having them in my life and it's happened.”

Nadine says she owes it all to those who somehow saw something in her worth saving and made her believe in saving herself.

Nadine: “I like myself finally. I really do. I never-- from the time I was a child, I always wanted to get out of my own skin, and now I'm comfortable in it… I'm a walking example that there is a God because so many miracles happened in my life, and it's all because I'm sober and I deal with life the right away.”

There's more good news for Nadine Purdy. Her oldestson arrived this month from Japan to stay with her, his middle brother and Isabella. He is also thinking about going to school in the U.S. And Nadine may go to Japan this summer for a reunion with her youngest son.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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