The Doctors: Decapitated Woman
Maybe you heard about the miraculous story of a woman who was internally decapitated and lived to tell the story. She spoke exclusively with The Doctors to give an update on her recovery.
Judy explained that she was rear-ended at a red light. Her neck snapped in the impact, and she realized she was paralyzed. She had excruciating pain, but doctors told her it was just whiplash, and refused to do an MRI because her insurance didn’t cover it.
The Drs TV: Woman’s Head Fell Off Her Spine
While sleeping one night, she accidentally removed the collar brace she had been prescribed. When she awoke, she couldn’t move her head. Finally, doctors began to take her injury more seriously.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Matt McGirt, of Vanderbilt University, took on the case, learning that Judy’s head had fallen off her spine. “It was a miracle she could walk and stand,” he said. Judy understood that the surgery she needed to correct this internal decapitation could paralyze or even kill her.
Three Part Decapitation Surgery
Dr. McGirt said they did the surgery in three stages, rebuilding her neck structure over the course of several days. Despite some tense moments in the operating room, Judy came through the surgery successfully. She is thankful that Dr. McGirt intervened, fearing she would otherwise not be alive right now.
The Doctors welcomed Dr. McGirt to their roundtable. Dr. Travis Stork said most of us think of decapitation in terms of a severed head. He explained this case of Internal Decapitation.
What Is Internal Decapitation
“Normally the base of the skull sits on top of the cervical spine, and it’s connected, like most bones, with ligaments,” he said. “But in this case, the ligaments were severed, and the skull was literally disconnected from the cervical spine.”
Dr. Travis added that this is an incredibly rare condition. Dr. McGirt explained how Judy’s dislocated neck from the car accident progressed even after the initial emergency surgery. Over the course of several weeks, her jawbone began to fuse to her clavicle, causing erosion and infection.
Preserving The Spinal Cord
Dr. McGirt explained that by the time he met Judy, she could not lift her head up. He said that her condition was even more remarkable, because the functional anatomy of her spine remained intact, even though it was disconnected from her skull.
“The real trick here was getting her realigned…without pinching the spinal cord,” Dr. McGirt said. It is an extremely sensitive part of the anatomy, and doctors had to figure out how to create a titanium neck for Judy without accidentally damaging the spine.
Weighted Halo Stabilizes Neck Injuries
Dr. McGirt also spoke about Judy’s challenges in the hospital, during which she spent three weeks wearing a weighted halo to help her anatomy stabilize. He said they had to slowly add weight over time and analyze the results to avoid damaging her spine.
Because of the skin infection where Judy’s jaw and clavicle were touching, there was an added challenge in Judy’s case. The neck surgery could not be done until the infection was cleared up, but doctors couldn’t address the infection until Judy’s head was stabilized.
Decapitated Woman’s Neck Surgery Update
Dr. McGirt said it has been a year and a half since he first met Judy and helped to rebuild her neck. Judy said she is grateful to have a second chance at life, and cherishes her children and grandchildren. She advised others with medical issues to continue fighting to find the person who can help you.
“If you lay down and quit, you’ll never get back up,” Judy said. “And I’m stubborn, so I don’t know when to quit.”
Judy’s Remarkable Story
The Doctors welcomed Judy to the set to chat with The Doctors about her amazing story. She wiped tears from her eyes as Dr. Travis called her story remarkable and the audience gave her a standing ovation.
“I can eat and I can talk. I can walk, and I can still dress myself and play with my grandkids,” Judy said, explaining what this surgery allowed her to be able to do.
Vanderbilt Doctors Save Decapitated Woman
Dr. Travis said this is a great example of a case that may have seemed hopeless, but said it was inspiring that a team of doctors and surgeons came together to solve Judy’s rare medical problem.
One of the other doctors on Judy’s case was Vanderbilt Neurosurgical Resident Dr. Adam Reid, who appeared in the audience. Dr. Jim Sears said residents are often the unsung heroes on the front lines of a hospital.
“It really makes us feel good that we’re able to help patients,” Dr. Reid said.
How Judy’s Neck Was Rebuilt
Dr. McGirt showed a model to demonstrate how Judy’s neck was reconstructed. In the front of her spine, they replaced her vertebrae with a metal shaft. In the back of her neck, they inserted rods to help her hold her back up.
“Her upper back is literally fixed to her skull,” Dr. Jim explained.
Custom Spinal Implants
Dr. McGirt said they worked with a company to custom design her spinal implants and used Judy’s own bone and protein to acclimate the implants to her spine. The hope is that the metal elements will provide a structure for the natural spinal anatomy to at least partially regenerate over a couple years.
Judy said she still has some pain in her neck and shoulders, but it is much less pain that she had prior to these surgeries. She said she is stubborn and she doesn’t give up, which is where she found the strength to endure these radical treatments.
For all the weird, gross, or scandalous things they trot out on The Doctors, it’s nice that they can showcase an amazing medical story like Judy’s every once in awhile.