She wondered: What type of cruel God would torture a family so?
The power of two words
Mom never lost faith.
She rarely left her daughter's side, let alone the house. On Mother's Day in 1982, Kathryn had a heart attack as she watched Edwarda sleep. She was hospitalized for 10 days, the first time she'd been away from Edwarda overnight in 12 years of caring for her.
Among those who covered the story was Miami Herald columnist Charles Whited. He first met the family in the years after she fell into the coma. He'd write a column around the holidays of a mother who refused to give up on her daughter.
"I've seen her, over these years, alternately buoyed by hope and crushed by despair, with even her faith tested as she awaits the miracle that never comes: Edwarda's awakening," Whited wrote in 1982.
Kathryn would call him often. Sometimes, she'd send letters. Her return address always carried the message: "Hope never dies."
"One of these days Edwarda is just not going to be able to fight off another infection," she said in one of her letters. "But even then, I will be richer for having cared for her and experienced all the love that people have shown her."
The next year Whited penned a different column. In August of 1983, Edwarda's mother said she'd heard her daughter utter one word: "Hey." She was in the kitchen with friends at the time. They rushed into the room.
"You'll never know the sensations that went over me. It was Edwarda's voice. We all ran in. She was smiling, as if she had done something terrific," Kathryn told him.
The next night, Edwarda said "hey" again. Kathryn wept at her bedside for an hour.
Whited asked, what if Edwarda never said anything again.
"I'm so elated that nothing can knock me down now," she told him. "Edwarda spoke. She really spoke."
Edwarda would never speak again. She would outlive the columnist. By 21 years.
The years came and went. Mom remained steadfast, always hoping, always praying. Edwarda had been reading the James Michener novel "Hawaii" when she fell ill during that Christmas in 1969. Mom read it to her more than 10 times over the years.
"It was never a sad place," recalls niece Pam Burdgick. "She always considered it a privilege. She loved having people come and visit. ... You left with a kind of sense of priorities, of how important family is."
While pilgrims made their way to visit Edwarda in South Florida, across the state a very different saga was playing out: that of Terri Schiavo, whose persistent vegetative state became a political, legal and family feud with her husband wanting to let her die and her parents wanting to let her live.
Schiavo, 41, died in 2005 after 15 years in a coma after a judge sided with her husband.
Kathryn paid attention to that battle but didn't cast judgment. She told people that families must deal with such tragedies in their own way -- and hers was united behind Edwarda.
Stephen Mayer, a professor of neurology and neurological surgery at Columbia University, has treated many comatose patients over the years. He says new research suggests that patients in persistent vegetative states may perceive what's around them in a way that doctors didn't previously understand.
"The best evidence of that are people who don't follow commands and appear to be vegetative, but after several years they wake up and start following commands," says Mayer.
Mayer, who did not treat Edwarda, says it's possible "she was perceiving what was going on around her to some extent over those 40 years, but not really able to communicate to us in a way that we can believe. And maybe the daily contact, the voices, the touches with her loved ones gave her reason to live."
"One thing I've learned over the years as somebody who treats people in a coma and tries to save them," he says, "is there's something very important about human contact with the people that bring meaning to your life, your loved ones."
Kathryn believed that to the fullest.
"God has given me the strength to care for Edwarda by sending angels in many forms -- friends, families, strangers who became friends, and many others," she told Wayne Dyer. "God has given me the gift of staying cheerful and being able to help others."