Surviving a Broken Neck—and Thriving After Recovery

Here’s how one man turned a disability into an asset.

You’ve seen it in a hundred action movies: The hero sneaks up on a bad guy, and with a quick twist of the head, breaks his neck and takes him out. But can you survive a broken neck?

Living with broken neckDespite what movies would have you believe, a broken neck is hardly a death sentence.

Absolutely—not only can you survive, but with the right treatment you can thrive afterward with few ill effects. What follows is a story of a tragic diving accident, two fractured cervical vertebrae, and a case of worsening kyphosis that could have been disastrous. Thankfully, this terrifying scenario has a happy ending.

Caution: Shallow Water

Tim Gerencer, age 16, was playing in the water with six or seven friends on Great Pond in Belgrade, Maine. It was a beautiful, bluebird day in 1976, and things were about to take a turn that would change the course of Tim’s life forever.

“I was with my pals on the lake where my parents had a summer camp, looking for something exciting to do,” Tim remembers. “The neighbors had recently had their deck and dock removed and were in the process of having them replaced. They had replaced the deck, but the dock was still missing. So we thought it would be fun to do shallow dives off the deck, into the water.”

The boys quickly became bored with dives and started doing flips, landing on their butts in the shallow water with legs outstretched. All the teens had soon joined in and the deck boards became progressively wetter and more slippery. On Tim’s second or third flip, he slipped and fell headfirst into the water, his scalp impacting the sand below with devastating force.

What a Broken Neck Feels Like

“Instantly I knew something was wrong,” said Tim. “When I stood up, I thought I yelled for my friends, but I looked around and nobody was looking at me. So I think I just imagined it.”

He started walking away through the water and up into the camp, where he told his mother he’d hurt his neck while diving.

Tim’s mother, Jeanne, was a nurse and an EMT, and she quickly triaged and assessed the situation. She immobilized his cervical spine, lashing his torso and forehead to a centerboard from a small sailboat. Then she drove him to the local hospital.

“I had the strangest sensation around my upper torso and my neck of tingling everywhere, with no clear sense of where my skin was around my neck and shoulders,” said Tim. “And my neck and shoulder muscles started to stiffen up.”

Years later, Tim got the chance to watch the local rescue squad in action, and was thankful for Jeanne’s training, experience, and swift reaction.

In the hospital, an X-ray tech asked Tim to turn his head to the side, so he could get a better image, and Jeanne quickly stepped in. “This is a cervical injury,” she snapped. “His neck is supposed to be immobilized.” The tech apologized and said he would do his best to compensate.

Vertebral Fractures and Kyphosis Ignored

Tim was admitted to the hospital with two fractured cervical vertebrae, bone chips in his neck, and ligament damage. After two weeks of traction and serious painkillers, Tim’s neurosurgeon told Jeanne that surgery would be too dangerous. The surgeon suggested her 16-year-old son should “take up new hobbies, like needlepoint or crochet.”

“I wasn't doing needle point and crochet,” Tim says. “While I was convalescing at home, I went out running around in the woods at night with my friends. I got in a small car accident. My brother threw a dictionary at me when we were having a fight. Lots of things happened that could have made a bad situation very much worse.”

Then one night, Tim’s father was cutting his hair when Tim suddenly passed out.

“I could hear the water on the lake, lapping the shore. And slowly that noise became louder and louder. And then I passed out and collapsed,” said Tim.

I should say at this point that Tim is my older brother. I remember vividly my father yelling, “Tim!” when he collapsed. I remember running out onto the porch, seeing my father trying to hold my brother’s body up.

After the fainting incident, Jeanne became alarmed. She contacted a few connections at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, connecting with a neurosurgeon there named John Hall. Hall asked to see the X-rays and said Tim’s condition looked like worsening kyphosis—an exaggerated rounding of the back. Two of Tim cervical vertebrae were also separating.

Spine curvesHealthy and problematic spinal curves

Dr. Hall told Jeanne that Tim could sneeze or turn his head the wrong way and sever his spinal cord. “Yes, the operation is dangerous,” he said, “but it’s far more dangerous not to have it.” In Hall’s opinion, telling a 16-year-old boy to take up needlepoint was not the answer.

Successful Cervical Fusion

Tim experienced a completely different kind of healthcare at the Boston Children’s Hospital.

“There were people one after the other parading in and doing things for me and feeding me good food and reading books to me and washing my hair. And it was a great experience.”

Then came the operation.

Tim was wheeled into the operating theater for a cervical fusion. Dr. Hall shaved off four of Tim’s spinous processes and took bone from his hip, using it to fuse the two fractured vertebrae together with two unbroken ones. He also added hardware, including wires and titanium rods to hold everything in place while Tim’s neck healed.

The operation was not without its lighter moments. “I remember lying on the operating table, surrounded by all sorts of people, and the last thing I heard after they gave me the anesthesia was a gentleman who remarked, I'm a dentist—what am I doing here?”

Tim slowly recovered. About three months later, he was back to his old, adventurous self. One day while out skiing, Jeanne spotted him from the chairlift as he was ripping down a trail. She yelled down, “Do you have your soft-collar on?” 

Tim immediately yelled back, “Yes!”

“And then I took off down the trail, and I did have the collar on, but it was around one of my arms. So I wasn't lying.”

After several months, Tim went back to Boston for a checkup. He remembers Dr. Hall parading him in front of a class of Harvard medical students.

“He stood me up and said what a great success the operation was, with an almost 100% recovery,” said Tim. “And I remember him saying, ‘We could drop this young man out of an airplane and as long as he landed on his head, he'd be fine.’”

Gerencer X rayAn X-ray of Tim's neck shows the hardware.

That prediction wasn’t so far off the mark. On more than one occasion, Tim’s fallen from high enough to sustain a concussion but with no adverse effects on his neck.

Living with a Broken Neck

Tim has had very few aftereffects or complaints as a result of his vertebral fractures and cervical kyphosis.

Ramrod straight, he has some neck pain from time to time, and limited range-of-motion in his neck. For example, if he’s not facing someone and they call his name, instead of turning his neck to answer, he turns his whole body toward them.

It’s a small disability that Tim has transformed into a likable part of his dynamic personality. When people talk to him, they feel they have his undivided attention—a benefit that may have even helped him build his extremely successful sales career.

“And here I am, approaching my 60th birthday,” Tim says. “And so far the warranty has not run out.”

Updated on: 07/13/20
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