Internal decapitation incidents confined mostly to car crashes

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Internal decapitation, where the skull shears away from the spine, is a rare but serious injury, which is more common in car crashes. Photo Credit: Hellerhoff/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

Numerous agencies are reporting the story of an Arizona woman who survived internal decapitation, where a person’s skull is separated from their spine. It’s a grisly injury and also an exceedingly rare one, though it is largely confined to car accidents.

Arizonan survives internal decapitation to thank firefighters who saved her

According to the Daily Mail, 23-year-old Rachael Bailey got into a car crash in September of 2011, sustaining an injury that few people survive, let alone be able to walk, talk and feed themselves after enduring. In the crash in Phoenix, Ariz., she suffered an internal decapitation, an injury caused when an impact is strong enough to sever the skull from the spinal cord, leaving the head attached to the body by little more than skin, muscle and other tissues.

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Normally, victims die. Luckily, a group of area firefighters were able to rescue her and transport her to John C. Lincoln Hospital, where she spent two months in intensive care, undergoing surgeries and learning to walk again. Recently, she appeared in the firehouse to thank her rescuers for saving her life. The captain of the firehouse wound up cooking dinner for her and her parents.

Rare injury

Internal decapitation is not a common injury, but it is more common in car crashes than any other instance. Also called atlanto-occipital dislocation, according to ABC, it’s caused when some force flails the head about so violently that the skull shears straight off the spine. The circumstances in which it occurs aren’t too dissimilar to whiplash, where the head is whipped, though with much more force.

If the victim survives, treatment is to attach a titanium “halo” to keep the head in place, which are attached via surgical screws into bone. Then, according to Sports Illustrated, a titanium rod is installed at the top of the spine, along with a titanium plate at the base of the skull. The surgery takes hours and even if successful, odds aren’t good they will even walk again. A doctor quoted by Sports Illustrated said that “95 percent” of victims die immediately “or within a day or two.”

Most of those who survive are paralyzed. The few who aren’t usually face months of physical therapy to walk and talk again. Lingering nerve damage is also common. It makes a case for checking a car’s crash safety rating as well as a vehicle loan calculator to see what payments will be.

Some walk away

Some do walk away from internal decapitation. A 2-year-old boy, Micah Andrews, also of Phoenix, Ariz., suffered the injury during a car crash in 2010, according to ABC. He spent two months in intensive care and therapy, eventually walking out of the hospital, though his sense of balance and speech patterns where affected.

Sports Illustrated covered the topic when Jon Wilhite, a youth pitching coach suffered the injury in a 2009 car crash in Anaheim, Calif. Wilhite was one of three passengers in the crash that claimed the life of Nick Adenhart, starting pitcher of the Anaheim Angels, and two of the other passengers. The drunk driver that struck them, Andrew Thomas Gallo, was sentenced to 51 years to life in prison in 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times. Wilhite, according to the OC Register, has made a nearly full recovery.

Wilhite can’t fully turn his head, requiring special equipment to drive and he has some speech issues. Still, that’s a small price for having one’s skull come off and living to tell the tale.


Daily Mail


Sports Illustrated

Los Angeles Times:

OC Register:

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