Meet Melissa – Prom Queen in high school, avid sports player, and world traveler. Melissa’s life is a happy one, and she has a plan for her future. After graduating from high school, she spent 6 months in Spain before getting her job at Mobile Life – in preparation for applying to Physician Assistant School.

February 9, 2019 was not part of the plan. After celebrating her best friend’s birthday in New Paltz, Melissa fell asleep in the back of the car in the early hours of the morning. So did everyone else, including the driver. Melissa woke up to the sound of her neck snapping.

“I was screaming to my friends, ‘Guys. Help. I can’t move my arms. I can’t move my legs.’”

– Melissa, Spine Patient at Garnet Health Medical Center.

When the ambulance arrived, Melissa made what may be the best choice of her life… She asked that they take her to the emergency room at GHMC.

A Risky Operation Saves Melissa From Being Paralyzed

In the accident, Melissa had suffered a hangman’s fracture, which is a fracture of the C2 vertebrae – the second vertebra towards the top of the neck, close to the skull. This type of fracture typically occurs when the head is snapped up and back with great force – known as a hyperextension injury.

“She came into the hospital still able to move but with a very unstable fracture that threatened her. That if we didn’t act and didn’t act quickly she could have wound up just like Christopher Reeve. Quadriplegic – in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.” – Jeffrey Oppenheim, MD

Prompt medical evaluation is critical after trauma such as this. If medical treatment is not sought out, permanent injury may occur to the spinal cord, leading to paralysis and, often, this type of injury can be fatal.

“That’s when I realized that it was an extremely risky operation. There was a lot of things in line. I could have been paralyzed. I could have not woken up from a surgery. But I trusted Dr. Oppenheim. He came in the room confident he came in there knowing what was going to happen he’s told me he’s done this a thousand times before.”

– Melissa, Spine Patient at Garnet Health Medical Center.

“So, we took her to surgery, performed a fusion on her using micro surgery. The tools and the team are available at Garnet Health Medical Center to provide this kind of critical life-saving work.” – Jeffrey Oppenheim, MD

Recovery & Rehabilitation After Spine Surgery

After Dr. Oppenheim performed the risky 3 hour spine surgery successfully, you would think that would be the worst of it. But for Melissa, like many patients, the road to recovery had just begun. Melissa was required to wear a neck stabilization collar for 3 months. Being a very social and active individual prior to the accident, the challenge of keeping her health and spirits up during this time was her main priority.

The staff at Garnet Health Medical Center ordered Melissa cutting edge techniques and therapies, like electromagnetic therapy – which helps to stimulate osteocytes (bone cells) to grow and weave together. Melissa visited Dr. Oppenheim every 6 weeks. When she was cleared to remove her collar and begin physical therapy, it wasn’t long before Melissa was literally up and running again.

“Melissa’s going to now go on and work in the medical profession and get a degree and spend her life giving back. And that’s a really deeply touching story. She is now going to be doing for other people what Garnet Health Medical Center in our community was able to do for her.”

– Jeffrey Oppenheim, MD

“Sometimes I think about what my life would be like if I didn’t break my neck and – I mean, nobody really wants to go through that, but I’ve learned to see the silver linings in a lot of things. So, a lot of good things did come out of it.” – Melissa, Spine Patient at Garnet Health Medical Center.


Thank you, Melissa

We can’t thank Melissa enough for sharing her story with us and our community. Her strength and perspective of life after such a traumatic injury is inspiring. We hope that she inspires you too. We hope her story reminds you of how quickly accidents can happen and how important it is to seek professional medical attention after such events.

The spine program at Garnet Health Medical Center offers care for traumatic injury to the spine and the spinal cord. Our neurosurgeons provide care to traumatic injuries of the spine which include fractures, dislocations, disc herniations, spinal cord injuries and spinal hematoma. All of our neurosurgeons have trained at Level 1 trauma centers enabling us to provide trauma surgery services to patients brought to the Emergency Department with urgent and emergency needs.

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