Budding model Katrina Caro was working as a waitress at a trendy Bowery club two years ago when she was inadvertently clocked in the jaw during a bar brawl.
Despite spitting chunks of her teeth into her hands, the Manhattan beauty thought she’d recover from her injuries.
She was treated at an emergency room, and sent home — but was warned that delayed consequences were characteristic of such trauma.
At first, she managed her aches with painkillers. She did facial exercises at physical-therapy sessions and was prescribed a mandibular splint to realign her jaw.
She even briefly returned to work at a different nightclub, but soon felt weak and could barely open her mouth to talk. Her jaw pain was intensifying and migrating to her neck and shoulder, while her ears started ringing.
Then the unthinkable — her debilitating symptoms morphed into a merciless condition called hyperacusis, an exceptionally rare disorder in which even the slightest sound is perceived as significantly louder and could cause excruciating pain.
To Caro, a pencil dropped on the floor sounds like a building collapsing.
“I always wore rings on each finger,” Caro recently told The Post. But now, clinking metal hurts her ears, so “I don’t wear jewelry any more. I can’t even put on a down coat because I can’t stand the sound of the swishing waterproof material and the zipper.”
Few doctors have even heard of the bizarre condition, and there are no reliable figures on the number of sufferers because it is so rare and hasn’t been studied.
The disorder is often caused by noise overexposure or head trauma, said Bryan Pollard, president of the nonprofit Hyperacusis Research.
“The pain is crippling and life-altering,” he said. “Sounds as normal as a squeaky door feel like a knife in the ear.”
With each new noise exposure, the pain often worsens and lingers indefinitely, he said.
“Life with hyperacusis is a balancing act,” Pollard said. “Ear protection is not always sufficient. The latest science shows that damaged cells in the auditory system lead to neural degeneration over months and years, despite little detectable hearing loss.”
Caro’s mother, Bruna Caro of Queens, said, “It’s hard to believe a thing this bad exists.’’
According to Caro’s audiology report, she jumps at sounds as low as 15 decibels — softer than the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies.
Almost any noise makes Caro’s jaw spasm. The cacophony of any city street can knock her off balance.
“Hyperacusis is completely incomprehensible,” she said.
To buffer painful noise outdoors, Caro wears earplugs topped by industrial earmuffs. To keep her balance, she uses a cane.
It’s a far cry from Caro’s onetime promising future in the glamorous fashion and modeling worlds.
The young woman’s portfolio includes sultry shots, and Caro’s résumé boasts jobs doing trunk shows and working at hip city clubs.
“Currently in New York City pursuing my dreams of modeling and acting. I love being in front of the camera and I always come to set with great energy and ready to create a beautiful image,’’ Caro wrote in a past online profile looking for work on the runway or stage.
“I was a social butterfly,” Caro said. “I loved meeting people from around the world.”
Now, Caro spends her time holed up in her quiet bedroom in her apartment in the back of a Chelsea building, cared for by her mother.
She has trouble eating because opening her jaw is agony. Her weight has plunged. Those metal rings she no longer wears because they clink? They would slip off her thin fingers.
Making matters worse, Caro said that weeks after being hurt, her former employer Finale’s workers’ compensation insurer, AmTrust, started curtailing her access to treatment.
The mandibular splint was delayed by five months, preventing proper jaw healing, her mother said.
When the insurer sought repeated medical exams for her, the family requested a quiet nearby setting or a home visit.
Instead, Caro said, AmTrust sent her to a doctor on Long Island.
The lengthy trip exposed her to honks and sirens, painful even with ear protection. In the waiting room, two cellphones rang, adding to her misery.
A letter from the insurer’s scheduling company, UniMex, noted, “The doctor was unable to examine her as she had seizures in the waiting room.”
The next exam was even farther away, in Westchester, a 100-mile round trip.
“The insurance adjustor has started to build my coffin,” Caro said.
When the insurer finally scheduled an exam in Manhattan, her mother called ahead and was told the doctor’s office was quiet.
The family arrived to find that the building was in an active construction zone, buzzing with drills.
After the exam, Caro was bedridden for weeks.
Later, another exam was scheduled at a different building under construction.
Caro’s father, Robert Caro, measured a cochlea-crushing 109 decibels on a smartphone app. Caro didn’t go.
“AmTrust’s refusals to provide needed treatment and medications, and to accommodate a severe disability, are inhumane and illegal,” said her mother, who worked in the insurance field for 30 years.
“This is bereft of logic. Why would you make a person who is suffering go and hurt herself more? I am stupefied.”
Citing confidentiality, reps for AmTrust and the state’s Workers’ Compensation Board refused to comment to The Post.
Caro rarely goes anywhere except to doctors’ offices. She now provides a heartbreaking letter introducing herself to people she encounters. It reads, in part:
“I have a rare condition called hyperacusis — intolerance and extreme sensitivity to everyday sounds. Most people do not know of this condition.
Unlike you, I cannot live a normal life. Sounds that you do not even notice cause me harm.
I need a safe environment in order to prevent further harm to me. I need your help.
- Please lower your voice, silence your cell phone, and do not stand/sit close to my ears.
- Please put me in an isolated area because I cannot sit in a waiting room.
The following all hurt me:
- Loud or high pitched voices, TV, music, phones ringing, copiers, faxes
- Items being dropped
- Papers being crunched or shuffled
- Sounds of fingers on a keyboard, clicking pens
- Elevator doors opening and closing.
I understand that you may cause me harm accidentally and that I accept as part of my new normal.
However, I need your help and understanding to prevent further harm to me.”
As of late January, because Caro has refused to attend a medical exam near any construction site, AmTrust has objected to paying for all further treatment, she said.
As her medical bills mount into the thousands, Caro said she is now receiving collection notices.
“Katrina can’t even go to the grocery store,” her mother lamented.
“How is she supposed to live the rest of her life?’’