Real People Stories

Struck Down

UPDATED 11/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

We're going to the parade!" Kathy Caronna chirps into the video camera as she and husband Massimo hurry from their apartment on Manhattan's East Side. The Caronnas are taping every moment so that Alessandro, their 8-month old son, will always have a memento of his first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

When the tape continues, the Caronnas are standing next to a lamppost on Central Park West, watching giant balloon figures jerk awkwardly in the gusty winds. Up the street a 56-foot Peter Rabbit swoops down, and the crowd utters a collective "Whoa!" "Look, Alé," sings Kathy, calling her son's attention to other balloons. Clowns, floats and marching bands pass by. Then the Cat in the Hat, with his 18-foot-high, red-and-white-striped hat, approaches and hovers over the Caronnas. For a ghoulish moment, its gigantic eyes seem to peer directly into the camera. Then it lurches into the lamppost, breaking off a 100-pound cast-iron extension that slams into Kathy Caronna's skull, knocking her unconscious.

Today, nearly a year later, the Caronnas are still struggling to refocus their lives. They have filed a $395 million lawsuit against Macy's and New York City, charging parade organizers with reckless disregard and negligence for ignoring severe wind warnings that had prompted Philadelphia, 100 miles away, to pull giant balloons from its own parade that same morning. City and Macy's officials deny any wrongdoing. "Based on our successful 68-year history of flying the balloons, we felt we were well prepared to handle the conditions," Macy's said in a written statement.

There is no denying, however, what happened to Kathy Caronna. The blow to her head was so forceful, says neurosurgeon Dr. James E.O. Hughes, who treated her after she was rushed to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, that "it split the skull apart," damaging both the temporal and frontal lobes of her brain—areas that control speech, memory and personality. So severe were her injuries that the Caronnas fear she may never be able to resume her career (Hughes believes Kathy couldn't possibly handle her old job as a financial analyst) and say she is unable to care independently for her son. "I'm not the same person," says Kathy, now 34. "I don't know if I'll ever be that way." Her only consolation was that she had handed Alessandro to her husband just moments before the accident. "I'm happy to be alive. I have my son," she says.

Yet she now needs full-time help to raise Alessandro, 19 months, because she is often exhausted, easily frustrated and extremely forgetful. "This year, we are probably going to my mother's for Thanksgiving," she says. "It's going to be emotional for sure, because everybody has a memory of what happened last year. I don't." Gently, Massimo reminds Kathy that they are going to the Caribbean this Thanksgiving. "We are going to look forward to Christmas and just skip Thanksgiving," he says.

Ironically, Thanksgiving was a day of special significance for the Caronnas. In fact, Kathy was born on Thanksgiving Day 1963. She grew up in Bay Shore, N.Y., the youngest of four children of William Brown and his wife, Helen, graduating from high school in 1981 and following in her father's footsteps to work on Wall Street for several major investment firms.

It was at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by mutual friends in 1993 that she met Massimo, now 33. Given Kathy's passion for all things Italian (she had studied the language and visited the country 10 times), a romance quickly blossomed. "It was just like, 'This is it,' " recalls the Italian-born Massimo, who not long before had left his job as a sales manager for clothing designer Gianfranco Ferre and was working as a waiter, "trying to figure things out." Kathy proved to be just the woman to get him back on track professionally. " 'Do it! You can do it! Come on!' " he recalls her urging.

Indeed, everything quickly began to click for the couple. Kathy got a new job in April 1994 at the prestigious banking firm of Schroder & Co., and she and Massimo married two months later. Alessandro was born in April 1997, and Massimo opened a showroom on Manhattan's upscale 57th Street for his own wholesale luxury-Italian-clothing company, the IMC Group. "Talk about happy times," he says. "Everything was just going great."

Until Thanksgiving. Just hours after her accident, doctors at St. Luke's removed a blood clot and a section of Kathy's skull to relieve pressure on her swelling brain. "I really thought she was going to die, or if she didn't we wouldn't feel happy that we saved her life," says Hughes. Yet three weeks later, Kathy woke from her coma. As usual, Massimo was by her side, holding her hand and begging her to squeeze his. Her first words, they laughingly recall, were in Italian: " 'Massimo, you're really an idiot!' "

Kathy spent a month at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange, N.J., then in February began daily outpatient rehabilitation at Mount Sinai-NYU Medical Center in Manhattan, working on speech, balance and basic arithmetic ("It was like, 'Give me a calculator, please' "). Today, she works out at a gym twice a week, takes yoga lessons and sometimes walks 1½ miles to Mount Sinai once a week to work on cognitive skills with a neuropsychologist. Still, both Kathy and Massimo accept that she may never be quite herself.

The 72nd annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade won't be quite itself either. Macy's won't fly the Cat in the Hat this year, lampposts will be replaced by safer models to guard against the possibility of an accident like last year's, and big balloons will be grounded if winds exceed 23 mph. "It's sad," says Kathy, "that it took my accident for them to do that."

Bruce Frankel
Eve Heyn in New York City

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