NEW ORLEANS - It was a horrific crash that marred the excitement of one of the city's most spectacular super parades.
Nearly three dozen lives were changed because one drunk driver got behind the wheel. They all survived, but the lingering effects continue nine months later.
One survivor is is telling her emotional story.
It was the Saturday before Carnival Day and Allison Reinhardt, 41, was excited. Friends came in from her childhood home in New Jersey. It was their first time to experience New Orleans culture and Mardi Gras. It was also a chance for Allison to show them why, after going to college at Loyola 20 years ago, she never left the Crescent City to return home, even choosing to raise her now college-age son in her new adopted home.
"My son, it's his religion. So he tells me every year, 'Mom, I don't need to come home for Christmas. I'll be there for Mardi Gras.' We love Mardi Gras. We love costuming. It's so much fun and there's such a spirit to it, and that New Orleans culture and the people of New Orleans are such an awesome people," said Reinhardt.
As Allison and her crew were walking to the Endymion parade route close to her home, they could not have imagined how much their lives were about to change and just how "awesome" the people of New Orleans could be.
Neilson Rizzuto, 25, of Paradis, with blood alcohol at three times the state's legal limit for drivers, plowed into the Endymion crowd. Thirty-two were injured. Allison and a friend from out-of-town, were two of them.
"I didn't hear anything coming. I didn't hear, I didn't hear anything coming at all," she said, wishing she had heard the speeding car so she could have warned her friend.
Allison was pinned under the drunk driver's truck and the truck he crashed into.
"If I was over just maybe a couple of inches, I may have lost this whole half of my body," she laments.
Endymion crash victim's long recovery
Among her serious injuries were a dislocated shoulder, a fractured collar bone, and all her ribs were broken, all 24 of them. She could not speak because her lung had collapsed, and her upper arm was seriously broken.
"I think now looking back, I think that cracking sound was actually my bones," Allison says remembering when she was hit.
EMS began treating the victims. She and her friend were taken to the hospital.
"I remember him (the paramedic) coming up to me. He was like, 'I have to cut your clothes off. I have to, I have to take your clothes off.' I said, 'OK,' she whispered because of her collapsed lung impeding her breathing.
No one died. The headlines have moved on, but her story has not come to an end. She is paying out-of-pocket for trauma therapy. And, it took seven months to finally find a surgeon, Dr. Russell Russo, to agree to repair her broken arm.
"Because my injuries are related to a criminal case, I was unable to get a second opinion for my arm."
Medical costs are mounting. She has no insurance and was already working three jobs to support her son. She is back full time at non-profit Putumayo World Music, doing what she loves, celebrating cultures and the world of music. But her arm is still too weak to work at her catering job.
"I'm a single mom. I depend on all three of my jobs. I depend on everything. This is how I provide for my son. I don't get child support and I'm very proud of it. I love being Kevin's mom. It is my number one job."
There is no chance of getting compensation from the drunk driver's minimal insurance policy.
"No attorney will accept our case. I can't find, I've been turned down by every single attorney in New Orleans. Not a single attorney wants us because there's no money involved," Reinhardt complained.
Still, Allison constantly thinks of the other survivors and the blessings she believes have come with the physical and emotional pain. When physical therapy was denied to help her regain the use of her arm, the people at Magnolia Physical Therapy came to her rescue, donating all services.
Neighbors built a wheelchair ramp for her friend whose hip was injured. He and his wife and dog could not travel back home so lived with her recuperating for four months. Then, there was also the difficult day in court reading her impact statement.
"I've been fighting for my life and normalcy since February 25, the day you injured so many people," she read from the statement that she had previously read in the courtroom.
She believes Rizzuto's guilty plea was equivalent to an apology. She was not allowed to talk to him but wants to say this: "I forgive you. I thank God and I've had a lot of blessings come out of this. And I hope that my experience can help others. I don't think jail's going to make him a better person. I think he has an opportunity to prevent this from happening again and he can be a spokesperson and tell people about his first hand experience."
She will never understand why people drive drunk, when there are so many options to get you home safely.
"That one second decision, making that decision to get into the car and turn the key, I almost died. My son could have been motherless. I can't even imagine that," she said.
Allison calls the many injured her "survivor family," and the first responders, Dr. Russo, the neighbors and physical therapists, her understanding employer, her 'guardian angels.' But there is still a huge hole in the list of people she wants to thank. One who cared for her as she was lying on Carrollton Avenue that horrific night. Her search on Facebook has come up empty.
"All I know is that she was a pediatric nurse, and here's my description of her: purple wig, purple green and gold stripped shirt. I have never been able to find her. I just want to thank her because she did not leave my side, not once," Reinhardt remembers through tears.
For the first time in nine months, Allison says she is pain free, and knows one day she'll be able to do the simple things again, like lift her arm and wash her own hair.
"This is the first time I'm really pain free. I can't believe I don't have constant pain any more. There are a lot of things I can't do, but that's OK. I'm getting there. I know I'm determined. I'm going to come back 100 percent."
If you are that pediatric nurse who helped Allison, or know who it is, please contact me on my e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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