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Decapitated woman lives to tell of medical miracle

Judy Kerns is a medical miracle. A car accident left the bone in Judy's neck literally crumbled.   

"My neck, I couldn't get my neck back up," says Kerns.

Kerns was decapitated internally. Her head had fallen off her spine.

"It was just like somebody was sticking knives in me, and my whole body would just freeze up in pain," explains Kerns.

She couldn't lift her head to eat and dropped to 98 pounds. She also developed sores under her neck that became infected, but doctor after doctor told Kerns they didn't know how to fix her head.

 "I was scared. I guess I was in so much pain. I just wanted it all over," says Kerns.

Then she met Vanderbilt surgeon Matthew McGirt who said he'd try a risky, but potentially lifesaving procedure.   

"We knew without surgery, she would likely die," says Matthew McGirt, a spine surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

For two weeks doctors worked to get Kerns healthy again. That meant nutrition through a feeding tube and treating her infected sores. Then came the week-long surgery.  

"This was the first time I had to rebuild someone's entire cervical spine. The real trick was doing it without paralyzing her," says McGirt.

Doctors created a titanium cage to replace the front of her spine. They also ran three long rods down the back of her neck to hold her head up. The entire surgery took 30 hours.

After three days, Kerns was walking. Now, she can't move her head or neck, but she's able to eat, walk outside and most importantly play with her grandkids.   But, she has to be extremely careful not to hit the metal pieces in her neck. Just one bad fall could paralyze or even kill her. She also can't run, jump or lift over five pounds.

Additional Information

CERVICAL SPINE SURGERY:  The goal of cervical spine surgery is to relieve pain, numbness, tingling and weakness, restore nerve function and stop or prevent abnormal motion in the spine. The surgeon does this by removing a disc or a bone and fusing the vertebrae together with a bone graft either in front of or behind the spine. The bone graft may be one of two types: an auto graft, bone taken from your body, or an allograft, bone from a bone bank. Sometimes metal plates, screws or wires are also used to further stabilize the spine. These techniques are called instrumentation. When the vertebrae have been surgically stabilized, abnormal motion is stopped and function is restored to the spinal nerves.(www.spineuniverse.com)

INTERNAL DECAPITATION:  Internal decapitation occurs when the ligaments connecting the skull to the spine are severed due to severe head trauma. Typically, the head is only held in place by the skin and spinal cord. Any movement could cause injury to the spinal cord and result in devastating neurological consequences or even death. Internal decapitation is five-times more common in children than it is in adults. (bnaneuro.net)

SURGERY:  In order to fix internal decapitation, a neurologist may implant a titanium loop in the neck/head to reattach the base of the skull to the spine. A piece of the patient's rib may be removed and used to hold the rod in place. (bnaneuro.net)

SURGERY AFTERMATH:  Although most patients who endure severe head trauma and internal decapitation have severe neurological damage, some will have a full recovery with no brain damage or neurological issues. In some cases, the patient will have full neurological function but will lack the ability to move the head in any direction. The surgery itself is very high risk and could result in paralysis, neurological damage or even death. After the surgery, patients have to be careful with their movement. One hard hit or fall could end in paralysis or death.