From Broken To Better: How I Found Strength After Surviving A Broken Neck

Frida Kahlo, "The Broken Column", 1944

I am a broken neck survivor. In 2013, I was in a car accident which broke my neck in two places. Doctors told me it was a miracle I survived. Afterwards, I spent three months in a halo brace vest and plus years learning to live the with emotional turmoil that follows a catastrophic incident. But the lessons that I learned during this time—like how important it is to be gentle with yourself, to celebrate little joys, and to practice gratitude—have become a new pillar of strength for me.

This is my story.

I woke up on September 5th of 2013 like I did every other morning. Just like any other Thursday. I had no way of knowing that morning that by 2:00 PM that afternoon, I would have broken my neck.

As a longtime sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I had a scheduled appointment with my psychologist to continue our work in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy/Exposure Response Therapy. I thought my appointment was between 4:00 and 5:00 PM but couldn’t remember which, so I called the office to confirm my appointment time. I was wrong. It was at 2:00 PM. I got dressed and headed out for my appointment. My mom and my sister were also with me because we planned to run errands together afterwards. We were laughing in the car, quoting lines from a movie we recently saw and loved. The sun shining. Miles of baby blue sky. The day was going to be a good one.

Sometimes I wish I never would have called to check my appointment time. Sometimes I wish I would have just shown up at the time I thought my appointment was. At the wrong time. Sometimes I wish I would have cancelled my appointment all together.

Right side of the vehicle front passenger side where I was sitting

We only had two more miles to go. We were crossing under a green light in a 50 MPH zone when a man in his late 70’s made an illegal turn. I was so close to getting to where I needed to be. It happened too fast to stop. Witness statements in the police report said that we “had no chance” to avoid a collision. 50 MPH of impact on the right side of our navy blue Saturn. On my side of the car. I remember a warm yet painful feeling in my neck, albeit a mild pain. I was more concerned for my family. It’s unbelievable where your mind goes in moments of shock. I started looking around for my phone that I lost. I had to cancel my appointment so I wouldn’t get a “no show” charge. I also thought about the car. It was totaled. My brain came back from wherever it went. Back to the scene when my sister was crying and holding her chest. My mom asked if we were all okay. There was blood in her mouth. “There’s blood in your mouth!” my sister cried. My mom looked in her visor mirror, then to me. “So do you!” she exclaimed. I looked into the mirror on my visor and saw blood in my mouth. As an anxious person, I immediately thought we were both internally bleeding. (It turned out that we both bit our tongues on impact). My neck hurt a little bit. Nothing severe or anything to really complain about, so I assumed it was just tense and maybe a bit sore from the impact.

I was reeling from what just happened, when I noticed a concerned man approaching our car. He explained that he was an EMT from another town, and asked if any of us were injured. I touched the right side of my neck. “Well, my neck hurts a little bit… I can still move it though,” and demonstrated. I had just turned 24 a few weeks before, so I didn’t know that you’re not supposed to move after an accident. I guess I was trying to prove to him (and to myself) that I was “okay”. Suddenly, his tone changed from simply inquiring to very serious and take-charge. “You have to preserve what you have.” He climbed into our back seat, right behind the front passenger side. He placed both hands firmly on the sides of my head. He held my head straight until the EMS arrived. That man felt like an angel. A few months after the accident, I contacted the EMS to see if they had his name on record so I could thank him for coming to our aid as a good samaritan. They told me there was no record on file of a bystander aiding the passengers. He only stayed long enough until a hard collar was slipped over his hands, and then quietly left the scene.

After the EMT applied the hard collar, they strapped me to a gurney. My clothes were cut off in the ambulance. In a moment of what I can only call internalized misogyny, I apologized for the stubbly re-growth on my legs. There I was, in the back of an ambulance with a broken neck, apologizing for what my body does naturally.

I was immediately taken into a room in the trauma unit. It’s exactly like in the movies and on TV. Bright lights. A flood of doctors and nurses surrounded me, firing questions at a rapid pace. What is my name? (“Ashley”). How old am I? (“24”.) Where does it hurt? (“The side of my neck”.) What happened? (“We were in a car accident.”) Was I wearing a seatbelt? (“Yes”). Did I lose consciousness at anytime? (“No”.) They asked me to smile (to check for brain injury). They asked me if I could feel this, if I could feel that. I recall being rolled over to my side, and my underwear pulled down. I felt a strange wiggling motion between my butt cheeks. I had no idea what was going on, until I felt something penetrate me. I cursed loudly in surprise. That’s what they call a rectal probe in suspected cases of spinal fracture. Feeling impolite for swearing, I apologized. Tests were ordered. An abdominal ultrasound to rule out internal bleeding (because of the presence of blood in my mouth), and a CT scan (to check for fracture). I asked one of the trauma doctors what my worst case scenario was. “The worst thing you could have is a fracture. If you do, you will have to wear a brace and then you will have a couple of months recovering. We’re going to find out.” My tests were completed. All there was to do now was wait.

The same doctor came back. “Well, you have a fracture.” he said casually. In my naïveté, I didn’t know that a fracture was the medical term for a “break”. I thought a “fracture” was a small crack, and that a “break” was an actual break. I felt strangely comforted by this misunderstanding. “The next step is to either have surgery, or you will have to wear a halo brace. The surgeon will decide.” As an anxious person, I asked if I was going to be paralyzed. I asked this question several times. All I needed was an assuring “no”, but to avoid liability (I assume), they would say something along the lines of “Well, you’re not paralyzed right now …” I didn’t get a straight answer to my question until a few weeks later when an occupational therapist decided to take pity on my anxious state and tell me that paralysis would have likely occurred at the moment of injury. This should have eased my mind and made me feel reassured, but honestly, it was a worry I held onto for over three months.

To assess the severity, I had to have an MRI scan. Once again, my bed was rolled back down to the imaging department. A middle-aged man with a scruffy face and shoulder length hair shoved the call button remote into my hands and roughly adjusted the cover to make sure my head stayed straight for the entire exam. At this point, I was laying for hours with a hard collar on. A trauma collar is not designed to be worn for long. The top ridge was digging into my head, and it was causing a lot of pressure. After the initial shock of having a spinal fracture, I was also feeling the residual pain all over my body from a high impact collision. I was trying to bear down with my pelvis in order to “lift” my head off of the ridge to alleviate the pressure and pain. I hit the call button. “I’ve been laying in this collar since before 2:00 PM. Is there another collar I can wear?” “You’re just gonna have to hang tight until I get these images done.” Back into the tube I went. My eyes were starting to water. I hadn’t seen my family since much earlier. I wanted my Mom. I hit the call button about 15 minutes later. When he slid me out of the tube to ask what was wrong, my trauma doctor came in with a foam collar. He carefully changed my collar, and then I was able to finally get some relief. My test was done, and my doctor would be back to tell me about the severity of my injury.

The results of these images would decide if I needed spinal surgery (which, because my fracture was on the C2 vertebrae, would permanently affect my ability to swallow or ever turn my head). My other option was a halo brace. “It’s a round headpiece that is attached to a vest, and it has these (motioning the halo bars) that go into your head – I mean, skin.” I remember the surgeon’s assistant’s mistake so vividly because the pins (that’s what they called them) DID go into my head. I think she was trying to keep me calm. She was talking about her daughters.

When I heard that I would need a halo brace, I thought of Regina George in her bed after being hit by the bus in the movie Mean Girls. So I said “Oh, like what Regina has in Mean Girls after she gets hit by the bus.” Regina’s halo brace didn’t look THAT bad. After all, she could wear clothes and go to the dance! I actually thought that at 24 years old. Call it my youth, my naïveté, or maybe my shock at the whole situation. But at the time, I believed it wholeheartedly. Little did I know that the “made for Hollywood” take on the experience of what a halo brace is, is absolutely nothing like what I would experience for the next three months and two weeks of my life.

I was wheeled into a room in the critical care/intensive care unit. It was a big private room with huge windows. Very clinical. It was close to midnight at this time, so the nurses gave me some pain medication and something to relax me. I was so relieved to see my Mom and my sister again. While bruised and sore, I was glad to see that neither of them were seriously injured. I fell asleep quickly after suggesting to my mom and sister that I could “get my hair blonde” so I could “be Regina for Halloween”. I was pretty amused by my Dilaudid-induced idea.

The next morning, I woke up to three people standing before me. The two men I would come to know as my orthotist, my neurosurgeon and his female assistant. I was very groggy from the meds, but I could hear them discussing the halo brace. It was time to apply the brace. My family and I were told how serious my fracture was. They called it “the hangman’s fracture”. A C2 fracture has this name because in the days of judicial hangings, the noose would be placed to break the second vertebrae upon impact for instant death. I also fractured my transverse foramen. The transverse foramen is a round bone that encases the vertebral artery. The vertebral artery supplies blood to the brain. Somehow, the transverse foramen broke without severing the artery. I was told that I was a miracle. After being told my options of a halo brace or a surgery that would permanently affect my ability to swallow or move my neck, the decision was clear. We had to try the halo brace. Even then, the neurosurgeon said that sometimes the procedure doesn’t “take” and that if my neck didn’t heal properly, surgery would still be on the table as a last resort.

Four screw-like pins were inserted into my head (two in the front, two in the back – about an inch from each ear), and attached to a heavy vest lined with thick wool. I don’t remember much about the actual application, except saying “oww” twice. The next thing I do remember though is seeing two black bars in front of me, and there were an additional two black bars behind me. It felt like somebody literally placed a 50 lb. weight on my head. It was so heavy! My parents and my sister came back into the room when the procedure was over. That first day is a blur of crying, wondering how I would get through three months with this apparatus on and inside my head, listening to Broadway show tunes on my iPad, and being sleepy from the pain medication.

After the halo brace procedure

I was told all of the things I wouldn’t be able to do for three months — like take a shower. The wool lining of the vest was very dense and susceptible to growing mold, so I was instructed to stay as dry as possible. That meant the closest thing I had to a shower for the duration of the three months was a soapy rag on the exposed skin. I couldn’t wash my hair either. My mom and my sister were my caretakers at the time, so I had to rely on dry shampoo and a damp rag with baby shampoo on my hair as it began to get greasy. When you have a foreign object in your skin, your body produces excess oil. My face would be slick with oil upon waking, and several times throughout the day. My sister would wipe my face with Neutrogena facial cleansing cloths, but the oil would come back within the hour.

A look at the complete vest/halo headpiece apparatus

Any movement of my head or neck was impossible. In order for my particular injury to heal completely, the halo headpiece ensured complete immobilization of my cervical spine. Sleeping comfortably is also a feat. As you can imagine, having a weighed apparatus on your head connected to a heavy vest on your torso pretty much makes any comfortable sleep impossible. Laying flat put too much pressure on the pin sites so I had to sleep upright in a recliner. My mom or my sister would place a rolled up washcloth behind my head to cushion the odd floating sensation my head would feel when you’re trying to recline but your neck is unable to touch the surface you’re lying against.

Three months. Twelve weeks. To think of it now, I can’t believe I got through it. I still can’t even fathom what strength I managed to pull from somewhere inside of myself in order to survive those twelve weeks. I ate my Thanksgiving dinner that year at the dinner table in boxers and a halo brace. I had nurses that came to our house daily to check my vitals and monitor my recovery. I was very lucky that we were assigned an amazing nurse named Yvonne who became like family. She would bring me Edible Arrangements sometimes and gave me a gift card in celebration of my halo being removed. It’s been four years, and we’re still in touch.

So how did I get through it? How does one get through anything so traumatic and catastrophic? It will be hard. It might even feel impossible to survive some days.

4 Lessons I Learned While Being in a Halo Brace:

1. Keep things funny.

When I was injured, I made this meme and shared it on Facebook to keep things light

I can’t emphasize how crucial this was to my emotional survival of those twelve weeks. You’re going to need your sense of humor. Laugh as often and as freely as you can. Even if it’s the only thing to keep you from crying. The movie we were quoting the day of the accident (“The Heat”) came out, and we watched it while I was in my halo. I laughed until my face hurt.

2. Look for signs of life and vitality anywhere you can find.

The doppleganger of Joan Cusack from Sixteen Candles gave me strength during my first three weeks

For all of my appointments with the neurosurgeon and orthotist, my family accompanied me to all of my appointments as we traveled by a special medical transport van (due to the fact that I couldn’t fit in a car/SUV with the top part of my halo brace). At my three week check-up with my neurosurgeon, my sister and I saw a woman who also had an appointment with the neurosurgeon. She was wearing a hard collar, and walking with the assistance of a walker. I wondered if maybe she had surgery recently. While we were waiting for my transport vehicle to pick us up, we watched her go outside to the parking lot where there was a hot dog stand. She was struggling to walk properly, but that didn’t stop her from hitting up the hot dog stand, and buying herself a hot dog. She put on her condiments, then wrapped her hot dog in a piece of foil and then shoved it inside her Chanel bag. It’s not everyday you see somebody purchase a hot dog at a randomly placed hot dog stand, carefully wrap it, and then place it inside their designer handbag – all without being able to move their neck. We nicknamed her “Joan” because she resembled Joan Cusack’s character in the movie Sixteen Candles. “Joan” has no idea, but she inspired me that day. She was the highlight of those first three weeks. The determination with which she obtained her hot dog despite her physical limitations was strangely inspiring to me in my situation. I was going to treat the remaining nine weeks like “Joan” treated her hot dog: with fierce determination and keeping my eyes on the prize.

3. Remember to count your blessings.

Observe strangers. Try to think of what they might be going through, or what battles they’re privately facing. Even though I was suffering and nobody I knew seemed to be able to relate, I knew that somewhere in this great big world, someone was suffering more and still fighting. If they could do it, so can/could I. I also remembered how lucky I was to be alive and able to walk (albeit difficult). I survived death on impact, paralysis, and losing blood supply to my brain. Those odds were extraordinary, and I was lucky and blessed to still be around. I remember being so thankful that each day, I would proclaim “Thank you arms, thank you legs, thank you body for still working properly and allowing me to walk and to touch and to experience life”. I remembered that, and I reminded myself of it every single day. Four years later, I still do.

4. Make small goals.

Even if the goal is just to make it through the day without crying. My first goal was to make it to my three week check-up, to my eight week check-up, to my final MRI before removal, to the date of removal. Don’t forget to reward yourself. Revive. Revitalize. Celebrate whenever you can. I celebrated not being paralyzed and having full function and use of my limbs. I celebrated my family being okay and without serious injury. I celebrated my halo removal with a cheeseburger from Five Guys.

My final x-ray before halo removal

On December 6th, my halo journey was complete. I went to my neurosurgeon’s office by medical transport, and I waited impatiently to be called back into a room. I was taken back for a final set of x-rays to ensure my fracture healed enough for removal.

The neurosurgeon looked over my MRI and recent X-Rays for what seemed like an eternity. I was so afraid he was going to say that the halo didn’t work, and that I would need surgery. “Take it off.” he said to the orthotist, and left the room. I don’t remember too many details of the removal, just hearing a lot of clicking as the pins were loosened and the head gear removed with a screwdriver and wrench type of tool. My head felt so light after the weighted headpiece was lifted off like a crown. I was so used to the sensation of my head feeling pushed down into my torso, so the feeling was incredibly light when the weight was taken off and nearly felt like my head was floating up into the air. I was finally able to hold my head up on my own. The pin sites were bleeding, and the blood was wiped away. I felt a little off balance, having been used to talking with the added weight and traction of the halo, but eventually I got my bearings and was able to walk and move more freely. Even though I lived twenty four years without the halo, I felt very nervous the moments immediately after removal. Nervous of re-injury, nervous the fracture didn’t heal properly, nervous about having to adjust to the new (albeit) temporary sensation of feeling like my head was about to detach from my body.

Even though I struggled through those three months and for awhile after, I also wanted to acknowledge what I feel is often overlooked. The emotional turmoil that follows a catastrophic incident. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other people have been catastrophically injured and seemed to recover well, but they likely didn’t have an existing anxiety disorder. My recovery will not be as simple for me as it was for them. My case is a difficult one, because I can’t avoid my triggers. It is literally impossible to avoid what scares me the most. Every time I am in a car, I’m afraid. Every car poses a direct threat to my life. I never saw the driver of the other car, so older men behind the wheel make me especially nervous. My mind races with what-if’s. Was it you? I sometimes wonder. Did you do this?

It’s been four years, and I’m still not okay. I’m trying to be okay with not being okay. With maybe never being okay. But I’m trying. Every time I get in a car, I’m afraid – but I still do it. Maybe one day, I won’t be afraid anymore. It’s not today, probably won’t be tomorrow or even next week. But someday.

Ashley Hesse is a 20-something writer/musician and women’s rights activist. She is a former beauty/special FX makeup artist who put down the makeup brushes and raised her fist in solidarity to help fight the social injustices against women all over the world. When she’s not crusading for social justice and defeating bigotry in all its forms, she also enjoys feeding her soul with musical theatre, red lipstick and Ghirardelli brownies.

One thought on “From Broken To Better: How I Found Strength After Surviving A Broken Neck

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! As I was reading, there were so many things that ring true. I also had an accident and had to wear a halo for 2.5 months. This was in 1999 and I still cannot watch a halo being put on. I am a nurse and work in ER and this is something that comes up from time to time. My question for you or anyone is do you have pain occasionally at your pin sites now? I still after all these years get horrible tension and painful headaches from my pin sites at the back of my head. Just wondering if you or anyone has any suggestions of how to cope with the pain?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *