Bill Harris: Medical woes add to uncertainty

Bill Harris says it will take time and faith to put his life back together. For now, his kidney problems have confined him to a wheelchair.
Bill Harris says it will take time and faith to put his life back together. For now, his kidney problems have confined him to a
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Bill Harris, 63, Slidell, La. Single owner of an uninsured condominium worth approximately $45,000.

Readers who followed’s hurricane blog over the past month will need no introduction to Bill Harris, a disabled man who credits his “miracle cat,” Miss Kitty, with saving him from drowning when Katrina’s violent storm surge battered its way into his condominium in the middle of the night. He spent the next three days standing on a chair in his flooded home with the cat clutched to his chest before being rescued by boat.

Like other Katrina victims, Harris is now trying to turn the page on the disaster and get his life back in order, an effort complicated by a chronic kidney condition exacerbated by his ordeal (click here to read Harris’ harrowing story of survival) and by the fact that he had no insurance on the condominium where he has lived for the last two years.

“I retired two years ago… and I couldn’t handle that end of it,” he said of the insurance premiums. “... I just let the insurance go.”

Harris, who is currently living in a Slidell nursing home, said he has spoken to a FEMA representative on the phone who told him he is eligible for federal assistance. But at this point he doesn’t know how much help he can expect and whether it will be enough to allow him to again live on his own.

Condo blasted into kindling
Even if it is, he can’t return to the condo, which was blasted to kindling by the storm surge that roared in from Lake Pontchartrain and through the Eden Isles area of Slidell.

And he doesn’t know at this point whether his medical condition, which has confined him to a wheelchair for the first time in his life, will allow him to leave even if he can afford to.

“I don’t know if I’ll be here two months, six months or a year, but I think this is the best place for me right now,” he said.

Harris, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., and lived in Houston with his parents, a brother and sister before moving to Louisiana in 1958, isn’t used to feeling helpless.

Former guard at Angola prison
He worked full time, first as a guard at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison and later as a security guard, until two years ago, when he suffered heat stroke when his air conditioner failed during a heat wave. The shock to his system caused his kidneys to nearly shut down, leaving them operating at just 15 percent of capacity.

Since then, Harris has been living an increasingly cloistered existence, getting by on disability insurance and relying on Medicaid to pay his medical bills and indulging himself in a few simple pleasures: time with his cat, television, citizen’s band and ham radios (where he is widely known as “Wild Bill”) and his friendships with clergy and fellow parishioners at a local Baptist church.

All of those comforts are now unavailable to him, and Harris is resigned to the fact that it’s going to take time and faith to put his life back together.

“It’s going to require patience,” he said, “but I certainly was patient in that water.”