ST. PETERSBURG — Nancy Livingston grew up with a mother who administered scheduled daily paddlings, threatened to send her to an orphanage and dismissed her straight-A report cards as insignificant.
Early adulthood wasn't much better. Two husbands had died by the time she was 32, the second by suicide.
After two relatively peaceful decades, during which she worked as a psychiatric nurse at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, the traumas returned. Breast cancer struck in her 60s, resulting in mastectomies. A third husband died. She suffered lymphoma.
Ms. Livingston not only survived those calamities, she helped others overcome theirs.
She volunteered at the Florida Holocaust Museum, becoming one of its first non-Jewish docents.
She also often visited the sick.
On Friday evening, Ms. Livingston was leaving an Arby's on Fourth Street N — a milk shake in hand for a fellow choir member who has cancer — when she was struck by a van in the parking lot and hit her head.
She died of her injuries Saturday at Bayfront Medical Center. Ms. Livingston was 78.
Something about having stared down a troubled childhood seemed to give her an empathy for victims, friends say. A member of the Florida Holocaust Museum's first docent class in 1997, Ms. Livingston disclosed that as a child she had been drawn to newsreels about Nazi Germany.
As a docent, said Carolyn Bass, the museum's executive director, "She would get up in front of our anti-Semitism time line and say, 'Listen, I'm a Christian and I'm telling you: They did this.' Whereas those of us who were Jewish treaded a little softer. She was a fighter."
The same woman used humor to deflect worries about her own pain when she was undergoing cancer treatment. "If you asked how she felt, she would respond with a funny story," said Sue Sipe, a friend from First Baptist.
Ms. Livingston was born in Massachusetts, and was 2 when her father died in a car accident. A memoir she self-published in 2000 describes a mother who got into dish-throwing fights with a new husband, and abused her and her brother both physically and psychologically.
Ms. Livingston made perfect scores on her SATs in high school, then entered a nursing career where she always gravitated to the center of the storm. She trained at a grimy New York City hospital where she said she "saw it all."
After moving to St. Petersburg from Haverhill, Mass., in 1957, she worked her way up to head nurse of intensive care at Mound Park Hospital (now Bayfront), her family said.
A first husband died. Her second husband committed an "unexplained suicide" at age 35, Ms. Livingston disclosed in her memoir.
Ms. Livingston then joined what is now Bay Pines VA Medical Center, where she worked on a chemical dependency unit. There she met Ed Livingston, a plumber with a playful side. They married around 1973.
Both the marriage and her second career as a psychiatric nurse proved rewarding, her family said.
Then cancer surfaced in the early to mid 1990s. She lost one breast, then the other.
In 2000, her husband died of a heart ailment. As she mourned, Ms. Livingston helped a longtime church friend, Lloyd Branch, cope with the death of his wife. Frances Branch had died just two days after Ed Livingston.
"You could say we consoled each other," said Branch, a retired dentist.
For the past several years, they have lived together.
"It was kind of like Humpty Dumpty being put back together, how this widow and widower found each other," said the Rev. Walter Draughon III, the senior pastor at First Baptist.
But Ms. Livingston's medical troubles were far from over. She was diagnosed with lymphoma, which led to hospital stays and painful chemotherapy treatments.
"For years, multiple times each week, she told me in our calls that she was sure she was going to die," her son, Mark Van Name, wrote in a blog post about his mother.
Once again, Ms. Livingston rebounded. Recently, doctors told her that because the disease had not appeared in four years, she could consider herself cancer-free.
She announced the news at last Wednesday's choir practice, to cheers and applause.
"I think I'm going to live after all," she told her son on the phone Friday.
Early that evening, she paid a visit to another choir member at First Baptist who has cancer.
Ms. Livingston went to a nearby Arby's to get a milk shake for the man, church members say. She was leaving the restaurant when a Dodge conversion van "bumped" her, police said. Ms. Livingston struck her head on the pavement, causing severe injuries. She died Saturday.
No charges were filed against the driver.
Now, Ms. Livingston's friends and loved ones are trying to fathom the loss of someone who had overcome so many challenges during her life. If there is a thread of consolation, it is that Ms. Livingston died while helping someone else.
"She was getting a milk shake," her daughter, Liza Johnson, said. "That is so my mom."