The Soldier and the 60-year-old Broken Neck

This was a story I saw on that interesting, now defunct series Urban Legends. That’s the show where three stories are dramatized, two being myths and one true, and it’s the audience’s job to figure out which is which. This one story in particular intrigued me because I have blogged about a medical condition that is very similar, know as atlanto-occipital dislocation, or internal decapitation, where the human head is severed from the body, but not externally. I read about it and discovered that 70% of people die from it at the scene (eg. car crashes where a person’s neck is broken), 15% die later in hospital and 15% recover. Some even manage to avoid paralysis. Remarkable.

This legend relayed a tale about a man named Bill Boyd who had fought in World War II. While over Germany, he jumped from a plane wearing a parachute and landed with a jolt on enemy territory. As far as Boyd could tell he had no injuries except his neck hurt. A lot. After cutting himself free, the soldier was caught by civilians and turned over to Nazis. Lovely. I’d prefer death to Fascism. He was placed in a very narrow cell that is smaller than cells made in penal institutions. It was about six feet by four feet, just enough room for a man to fit. Boyd was imprisoned for 8 weeks in this luxury spa. During that time his neck was in severe pain and he could barely turn his head. Although his capture was anything but pleasant, it turned out to be a lifesaver, or at least to prevent him from paralysis.

pic-neck-xray-aSixty years after the war was over and he had long since returned home, Boyd was in a car accident and had to get x-rays. A specialist took a look at his x-rays and informed him that he’d been living on borrowed time for sixty-two years. Unbeknownst to our friend Boyd, he’d broken his neck during the fall from the plane in the war and had been walking around with it for sixty years. To be more specific Boyd has a dislocation between the C6 and C7 of the vertebrae. He was within a millimetre from being paralyzed for life. He’d never received medical treatment for the fracture. This of course was the incident when he’d parachuted from the airplane during the war. What had saved him from paralysis?

The extreme confinement of the cell. That and being trapped in the narrow cell for 8 weeks which is exactly the time required to heal a fractured or broken neck. Although he’d had no surgery and no cervical collar device to keep his head and neck aligned, the two months he’d spent unable to move had caused his neck bones to fuse together and heal themselves without consequence. In other words, the cell was Boyd’s cervical collar. For that reason, the man had spent six decades after the war living with what had once been a broken neck and not knowing it until the day of his medical x-rays. In fact, if Boyd hadn’t been kept confined during the time when his bones were fusing, even bending down to tie his shoes could have paralyzed him.

You’d think this story was a myth wouldn’t you? But it was true. No wonder they say truth is stranger than fiction.

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