STERLING, Va. — In a June thunderstorm, the Porsche roared around a curve in the wrong lane and smashed head-on into Genevieve Petrella's Mustang.
Her head hit the windshield, forever altering her life.
She was 23, married a year, a top saleswoman for American Telephone & Telegraph Co. The accident left her with an IQ of 61 and a tenacious will to be normal.
Petrella often cannot remember what was said to her minutes before. Tomorrow, she will not remember today. She carries a book in which she writes down nearly everything that happens to her.
"It's a really hard thing to realize people can forget things that fast. That part of Gen's brain just does not work," said her husband, Dennis.
Like the main character in the new movie "Regarding Henry," Petrella has beaten enormous odds to survive and recover from a severe head injury.
Doctors did not expect Petrella to live more than a few hours after she arrived at Fairfax Hospital. Then she was not supposed to wake from her coma; then she was not supposed to walk or talk.
"Ten years ago, people did not survive the kind of injuries she had," her husband said.
She had to relearn the most basic facts of her own life: her name, her husband's name, that she was even married at all.
Her husband played a videotape of their wedding dozens of times until she recognized the characters on the screen as herself, her family, as Denny and Gen.
"Sometimes she tells me that she feels like she just woke up," her husband said.
"We have nothing that normal married people have," her husband, 30, said. Obviously I miss it, but I'd rather have her in the capacity she is than not have her at all."
"He takes the best care of me. I couldn't have done anything without him," Petrella said.
The couple plan to renew their marriage vows on their fifth anniversary.
Raymond A. Cooper Jr., 36, was killed instantly in the June 14, 1989, accident, which occurred as he competed in a scavenger hunt sponsored by his company.
In May, a Fairfax County jury awarded Petrella $12.4 million. It was the largest personal injury award in Virginia history, according to the Virginia Trial Lawyers Assn.
Doctors testified that it could cost $9 million to care for her the rest of her life.
Cooper's estate and his firm, NV Commercial Management Partnership, have asked the judge to review the award. The company argued that it should not be blamed for Petrella's injuries.
Petrella testified once in the 11-day trial.
"She showed the jury pictures of herself before the accident, and they understood her. They understood how she was before," said her lawyer, William O. Snead III.
"She won her own case," he said.
The extent of her injuries, or the progress she has made, are not immediately apparent.
After extensive plastic surgery to repair crushed bones in her face, she is pretty and trim. The only clues to the injuries are a heavy brace on one ankle and thick glasses for her severely limited vision.
She is polite and attentive.
"I played on the (company) softball team, and I was going to the game. But it was rained out, because there was a big storm that day. So I was driving home, and that's when the accident happened," she said.
But she does not remember the crash or the 10 months she spent in three hospitals. She does not remember the job she loved, but she can rattle off her duties there. She does not remember high school, but she lists her accomplishments: Park View High School's Female Athlete of the Year for 1983. Most Valuable Player on the track team.
"She knows these things because we have gone over them hundreds, thousands of times. And she will still forget sometimes," her husband said.
Petrella spends each day at an intensive program for head-injured people in Fairfax, Va., a Washington suburb.
"Head injury is a relatively new entity," said Dr. Roger V. Gisolfi, who directs the special rehabilitation center treating Petrella. "Only recently have we had a large number of people survive, and now we have this special patient population with unique medical and sociological needs."
Few people recognize the extent of the problems people recovering from head injuries face, Gisolfi said. "You can see that someone with a prosthesis, or someone in a wheelchair, is injured. Head injury patients tend to be not nearly as obvious."
Petrella began coming out of her coma a month after the accident. She spoke her first word a week later: "Hi." Then came the long, frustrating process of making sense out of her scrambled, wounded mind.
Therapists helped her relearn everything from sentence structure to how to brush her teeth.
Two years after the accident, her brain has healed as much as it can, Gisolfi said. Any gains now will be very slight.
"But any gain at all, however small, is a huge gain for Gen," her husband said.