Doctors Reattach Teen's Head After Car Wreck

ByABC News via via logo

Jan. 21, 2003 -- The most amazing thing about 18-year-old Marcos Parra's story is that he is alive to tell it.

Just a few months ago, Parra's car was hit by a drunken driver and his head was almost completely severed from his body, with only his spinal cord keeping it connected.

Parra barely recalls what happened. "I just remembered hearing someone screaming," Parra told Good Morning America. "They said it was my friend but I can't tell you because I wasn't there 100 percent."

Parra was rushed from the scene to the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.

Doctors had never seen such injuries. It almost didn't matter that he had a broken clavicle, pelvis, tailbone and ribs. They were stunned to learn of the injury to his neck that technically ripped off his head.

His skull was ripped from the cervical spine, detaching Parra's head from the neck.

A Hollywood Moment

At that point, it seemed only a miracle could save Parra. But that is essentially what he got in the form of Dr. Curtis Dickman of the Barrow Neurologic Institute at St. Joseph's. What happened in that Phoenix hospital seemed like something straight out of Hollywood.

"Most people with this injury die at the scene of the accident because it requires very severe and violent forces to create this type of injury," Dickman said.

No one can say if it was luck or destiny, but it so happens that Dickman had been perfecting a technique to treat an injury as rare as Parra's. The surgeon had been testing the method on human cadavers.

The young man ended up being the first person in the world to undergo the experimental surgery that saved his life.

Before undergoing the surgery, Parra summoned the pastor of his church to the hospital.

"It was one of the nurses that called me who said you need to come to the hospital immediately. I said is there something wrong? She said 'no, Marcos won't let us perform surgery on him until you come pray for him,' " said Arthur Tafoya, pastor of the Glendale Apostolic Church.

The spinal cord and arteries had not been damaged, making Parra an excellent candidate for Dickman's technique, which makes use of two surgical screws.

Turn of the Screw

Surgeons delicately inserted the screws through the back of Marcos' neck to reconnect the first vertebrae to the base of the skull. This pulled the severed bones back into position. A piece of Marcos' pelvis was used to patch his neck and skull together.

"What distinguishes this technique from the other techniques available is that it preserves the majority of motion in the neck," Dickman said. "And when the motion is lost, it's disabling."

After the surgery, it was a long and difficult recovery period. Parra spent four months wearing a halo-brace to help his neck heal and went through hundreds of hours of rehabilitation. He is now back on the basketball court and loving every minute of his life.

"I'm here to enjoy life," Parra said. "This is nothing. I could be in bed or in a wheelchair, contained in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Or not be here, be dead. This ain't nothing, I'm walking. After everything I went through, this is a walk in the park for me right now, thank God."

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