Young Man Survives ‘Internal Decapitation’ Where His Skull Was Separated From His Spine


Brock Meister, who beat brain cancer as a teen, survived a rare and fatal injury called atlanto-occipital dislocation he incurred after he had met a car accident in January.

The atlanto-occipital dislocation is a condition where the person's skull is separated from the spine internally, but the head was not completely severed from the body.

Meister, 22, got involved accident while traveling with a friend to his grandparents' house at Lake of the Woods after a late dinner with friends in Plymouth. The car slipped on a patch of ice, causing Brock to smash his head into the window. They were only traveling at 40 miles per hour.

Emergency services brought him immediately to the Memorial Hospital where doctors found that he suffered a traumatic internal decapitation.

Most sufferers of atlanto-occipital dislocation died right after their accidents. The few people who survived have lived with lasting damages to the spine, brain, muscles, and nerves.

Operating Atlanto-Occipital Dislocation

The frequency of accidents involving internal decapitation is unknown since the majority of those who died of it did not even make it to the hospitals. In fact, Meister is only the second patient with atlanto-occipital dislocation who was alive when admitted to Memorial Hospital.

In fact, Dr. Kashif Shaikh, the neurosurgeon who handled Meister's case had to check his x-rays twice to be sure that the patient was alive. Upon looking at his x-rays, his initial thought was how efficient the emergency response team who managed to bring him to the hospital. Aside from internal decapitation, Meister also suffered hematoma in his neck that compressed his airway.

Shaikh sought the help of another surgeon, Dr. Neal Patel, to operate on Meister. Their first step was to realign his skull and spine. Shaikh was the one who worked on Meister's head while Patel held his body. The surgeons proceeded with the actual surgery after achieving near-normal anatomic realignment.

They made an incision in the back of Meister's neck and dissect it to expose the back part of the skull and cervical spine. The surgeons then put a skull plate and spinal crews above and below his fracture, attaching Meister's head into his spine with a rod.

Meister was out from the hospital by February and wore a neck brace until late spring. Come summer, he is back to spending time with family and friends at the lake.

As it turned out, Shaikh might have also operated Meister back in the days when the latter had his brain tumor removed. Back then, Shaikh was in his second year as a neurosurgery resident.

Atlanto-Occipital Dislocation Facts

Aside from the skull being separated from the spine, the blood vessels supplying the brain and the spinal cord are also injured during internal decapitation. The injury is most often fatal or leaves lifetime brain impairment.

A 2005 study looked into the cases of child patients in Philadelphia who suffered atlanto-occipital dislocation. It found that of the 16 patients who were internally decapitated, only five or 31 percent survived.

The cases were reviewed between 1986 and 2003. The mean age of the 16 patients was 7.6 years old. Eight of them were declared dead on arrival. The other eight patients survived and worn either a halo vest or another orthosis.

Three of those who survived subsequently died while undergoing neurosurgical procedures while five others continued to live. One retained neurological functions, three had mild mobility impairment but functional, and the other one was dependent on a ventilator.

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