In mid-September, Rylea Taylor and her two children survived a 70mph head-on collision in Australia. But when Rylea pulled 16-month-old Jaxon out of the wreckage, she didn't need to be an expert to see her son's neck was broken. Indeed, his top two vertebrae were fractured, and both they and the boy's head were completely detached from Jaxon's spinal column. Still, he was alive and somehow not paralyzed—though the slightest wrong movement could have permanently damaged nerves—so the doctor known as Australia’s "godfather" of spinal surgery, Geoffrey Askin, pulled off a six-hour operation at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane to reattach Jaxon’s skull to his spine. The story made headlines earlier this month—the Brisbane Times called it "somewhat of a miracle," while a Reuters story refers to the "miracle baby"—and now Scientific American has new details on how Askin's team managed it.
Most people die from this "internal decapitation" because the brain signals that instruct the lungs to breathe don't reach their destination. With 68% of victims dying before they are even diagnosed, and another 22% in the hospital, Jaxon was among the 10% who survive. In children, high-speed car accidents cause 80% of these upper spinal dislocations, Askin says, with the secured child’s head flung forward. Among the survivors, paralysis is the norm, but somehow the nerves in Jaxon's spinal cord were intact. During surgery, a light, custom-made halo brace was screwed into his skull and the fragmented bones were carefully realigned. With surgical screws proving too large for Jaxon's bones, surgeons used the "primitive" approach of rejoining the bones with wire. They also had to use a piece of one of the boy's ribs to fuse two vertebrae together. Now Jaxon is able to walk, and, because he's still growing, he could recover fully. "He's just really, really lucky," Askin says. (Check out the weight-loss surgery performed on this toddler.)