Four year old Killian Gonzalez made headlines last week when he was clinically decapitated in a car accident, but miraculously survived. He had just celebrated his birthday at a party and was in the car with his mother, who was driving home to Nevada when a hailstorm hit. She lost control on the slick roads and flew into oncoming traffic on two-lane State Highway 51 in Idaho. She hit another vehicle head-on.
The mother was pinned in the front seat, suffering from broken arms and legs, and couldn’t get to her son, the only thing she could think about. She later recalled thinking, “I have to get to my baby.” When she looked back at him strapped into a booster seat, he was hunched over and not crying nor awake. “I kept talking to him and trying to get him to wake up,” she retold in an interview. Then she heard him whimper and say “Mama”.
A couple and their two children were driving home from camping when they came across the accident. Leah Woodward saw the man in the other car, pinned, bloody and disoriented, but alive. She went to help Ms. Gonzalez, who was unable to unlock the door because her arm what shattered. She saw Killian in the back, still not moving, but screaming. During an interview, Ms. Woodward commented, “As a mom, that just goes right to your heart. My immediate instinct was: ‘You have to help that little guy.’ ”
Her husband, police officer Joel Woodward, broke a window in the car and crawled through, cutting himself. He told his wife to hold the child upright and keep his head still. And she did so for half an hour until help arrived, most likely saving his life. “My first instinct would have been to cradle the little guy, but clearly that would have been the wrong choice,” Ms. Woodward said. “I had my hands kind of, like, thumbs by his ears and hands wrapped behind his neck holding it still,” she said. “He didn’t fight, he was not moving; every now and then he would come to.”
She noticed a pink gel-like substance on the seats of the vehicle, the boy, and her. A nurse told her it could have been spinal fluid. Ms. Woodward spoke with Ms. Gonzalez and Killian, asking about his party and presents, trying to keep him awake. She heard him say, “I don’t hurt anymore. I am all done.” When medics arrived, they worked around her, still holding his head. They fitted him with a collar and air-lifted both he and his mother to the hospital.
Killian had a rupture spleen, broken ribs, broken arms, and had suffered a clinical decapitation, meaning his skull was separated from his spine. Also know as an “internal decapitation”, it is one of the most traumatic injuries suffered by small children when they are involved in high-speed motor vehicle accidents. It happens when the muscles, joints and ligaments that connect the base of the skull with the spine are damaged and is usually fatal. Four of six of Killian’s ligaments were stretched an inch during the collision but then sprang back. He will be about 1/3 an inch taller now.
This injury happens three times more often with children because the muscles in their neck are not fully developed yet. Their weak neck muscles aren’t ready to support the full weight of their head. Doctors use rods, wires or screws to reattach the skull and spine but Killian was lucky enough to only need the assistance of a hard collar to support his neck and head. He was discharged and is eating, talking and walking on his own, but still having trouble with balance.
The fatality rate of clinical decapitation is hard to determine since most victim in car accidents are not autopsied to determine exact cause of death, but a study released in 2005 reported that over a 17 year period, 16 children with the injury were treated at one hospital for the injury and only five survived, which is about 30%. Fatality rates are so high because when the skull is detached, the head wobbles around more than it should. Another reason is that the lower brain stem may be damaged, but not known, which is hazardous as the brain stem controls breathing.
What You Should Do
Here are some things that you can do to help prevent this injury and what to do in the event of a car accident.
- Use child seats properly: The best line of defense in a car accident is a child buckled securely in a car seat. Stay with a rear-facing seat as long as the particulars of yours allows. Then when the child is forward-facing, be sure to use a five-point seatbelt harness until the upper height and weight limits are reached.
- Stay calm: If you are in an accident with small children, you are going to panic. Those that panic can make rash decisions. Take a breath and assess the situation before you act.
- Stay put: Unless the car is on fire, do not try to move an injured patient.
- Immobilize: Doctors know that ff a child with this injury has any hope of surviving, their head and neck need to be immediately immobilized, just as Ms. Woodward had done for Killian.
If you or someone you love has been injured in a car wreck that wasn’t your fault, you may have a personal injury claim against them. To get all your questions answered, call Godsey Martin, P.C. at 1-877-IGOTHIT.
Boy Recovering After Clinical Decapitation in Idaho Crash. (2016, June 07). Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/06/07/us/ap-us-internally-decapitated-boy.html
Rettner, R. (2016, June 10). Child's rare injury: What's internal decapitation? | Fox News. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://www.foxnews.com/health/2016/06/10/childs-rare-injury-whats-internal-decapitation.html