Woman Survives Rare Internal Decapitation

Neck x-ray image.
Neck x-ray image. (Image credit: NIH)

Rachel Bailey did not lose her head over temporarily losing her head. The 23-year-old Phoenix resident is making a miraculous recovery after a car accident fully separated her skull from her spine, a rarely seen and even more rarely survived injury called an internal decapitation.

"I just thought, 'I'm not going to let this beat me, I'm not going to let this define me,'" Bailey told Arizona TV station 3TV of the injury that put her in an intensive care unit for a month after the car crash in September 2011.

After six surgeries and extensive physical therapy, Bailey recovered her ability to walk and talk, and on Monday (Sept. 24) she had dinner with the Phoenix firefighters whose speedy work saved her from paralysis, according to 3TV.

Internal decapitation, or atlanto-occipital dislocation, occurs when head trauma separates the skull from the spinal column while leaving the exterior of the neck intact. According to a 2006 study in the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine, the sensation of instability that results when part or all of the spinal column is severed in a still-conscious person "may cause patients to experience the sensation that their 'head is falling off.'"

Because the types of head injury that can cause internal decapitation usually also involve severe nerve damage or the severing of the spinal cord, the usual result is paralysis or death.

Bailey escaped those fates handily, but she says she can't remember anything from the month-and-a-half period starting a few days before the crash. 

Though her nearly full recovery is very rare, it isn't unique. Among her new colleagues in the tiny subset of people who have survived an internal decapitation is Shannon Malloy, a Nebraska woman who, in 2007,  emerged from a car crash without paralysis and in good enough shape to talk to the press a few months later. 

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Life's Little Mysteries Staff Writer