A 4-year-old boy who was “clinically decapitated” in a recent car crash in Idaho survived after a rescuer resisted the urge to pick up and cradle the screaming child and instead held his head in place for a half-hour, most likely saving his life, his mother and the rescuer said.
The story of the boy, Killian Gonzalez, who endured one of the worst traumatic injuries that can affect small children in car crashes but escaped with his life through the actions of a good Samaritan, unfolded on State Highway 51, a two-lane road slicked by a hailstorm at the time.
Killian’s mother, Brandy Gonzalez, said she was driving home to Nevada after attending a party in Idaho to celebrate the boy’s birthday when her car skidded and went into a lane of oncoming traffic, colliding with another vehicle.
Pinned in the wreckage and with broken bones, she tried to turn to reach her son, who was strapped into a booster-type car seat in the back.
“I was like: I have to get to my baby. I looked back and he is just hunched over. He is not crying; he is not awake.”
“I kept talking to him and trying to get him to wake up,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Then a sound from the boy: a whimper, and the word “Momma.”
Killian’s skull was separated from his spine, and he also had a ruptured spleen and broken ribs and arms, a local television station, KBOI, reported from the hospital. Gonzalez suffered broken arms and legs. As for the condition of the other driver, Gonzalez described the person as having been pinned but OK.
The accident happened in Owyhee County, which is in the southwestern corner of Idaho on the border with Nevada, at 3:14 p.m. on May 22, Chief Deputy Lynn Bowman, of the county Sheriff’s Department, said in a telephone interview.
Leah Woodward and her husband, Joel Woodward, an officer with the police department in Nampa, Idaho, were driving home with their two children from a camping trip when they crested a hill and came upon the wreck.
Leah Woodward said she saw a man in the driver’s seat of one vehicle, bloody and disoriented. In the other vehicle, she saw Gonzalez, her arm clearly shattered, unable to unlock her car doors to help the Woodwards reach her. In the back, Killian was not moving, but he was screaming.
“As a mom, that just goes right to your heart,” Woodward said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “My immediate instinct was: ‘You have to help that little guy.’”
Her husband broke a window of the Gonzalez vehicle, then squeezed through, cutting himself on the glass to reach Killian. He then told his wife to hold the child upright, keeping his head steady, until help came.
“My first instinct would have been to cradle the little guy, but clearly that would have been the wrong choice,” Leah Woodward said.
The boy’s broken arm was backward, so they draped it against his side and covered him with a blanket. Woodward said a pinkish gel-like substance was splattered on the seat, the boy and her. Later, her sister, a nurse, told her that might have been spinal fluid.
“I had my hands kind of, like, thumbs by his ears and hands wrapped behind his neck holding it still,” she said. “He didn’t fight, he was not moving; every now and then he would come to.”
As she held his head for about 30 minutes, she said, she talked to the boy. Asking Gonzalez details about her son, Leah Woodward tried to keep his attention, chatting to him about his strawberry birthday cake and toy dinosaur, trying to fight the boy’s impulse to drift off.
His eyes rolled around in his head, or flashed in fear, she recalled. At one point, she said, he spoke: “I don’t hurt anymore. I am all done.”
When emergency medics arrived, she continued holding his head as they worked around her, finally fixing him with a collar and getting him into an ambulance.
“I am just glad I did not know his injuries at the time,” she said.
Killian, his mother and the other driver were flown by air ambulance to hospitals, Bowman said.
Leslie Dorn, Killian’s grandmother, stayed with the boy in the hospital while Gonzalez underwent treatment for her injuries. She said doctors told her four of the six ligaments connecting the boy’s skull and spine were stretched by an inch from the impact, but then sprang back to leave Killian about one-third of an inch taller than he was before the crash.
Officials from the hospital, St. Luke’s Boise, where Killian was treated, declined to comment.
A fundraising page for the boy said that he had “a fracture at the base of his skull where the brain stem connects to the spinal cord.”
Clinical, or internal, decapitation is a colloquial term for an injury known to surgeons as occipital-cervical dislocation. It happens when the ligaments, muscles and joints that connect the base of the skull to the top of the spine are damaged.
“So the term ‘decapitation’ in the true sense of cutting someone’s head off is a bit extreme,” said Dr. Nicholas Theodore, the director of spinal surgery at the Barrow Neurological Institute, who has operated on more than 60 patients with the injury. He has used titanium rods, wires or screws to reattach the base of the skull to the spine.
Theodore said the injury was almost always associated with high-speed accidents in which the head is pulled away from the spine, and it occurs more often with children than adults because their neck musculature is still undeveloped and weak.
“Especially younger patients, the head is like a bowling ball on a stick,” he said. “Their head sort of bobbles.”
Theodore, who treated a 2-year-old boy with the injury in 2010, did not comment on Killian’s case but said: “You don’t ever want to move an injury patient unless a car is on fire. Immobilizing a child is exactly what you want to do.”
On Tuesday, Killian, who had been discharged from the hospital over the weekend, was walking unassisted at home, fitted with a hard collar to support his head and neck, Gonzalez said.
“He can take a few steps, but his equilibrium is still off,” she said.
He does not talk about the accident.