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Recovery from a Broken Neck

by Marie McKenna O'Brien(more info)

listed in healing, originally published in issue 57 - October 2000

This is a story of profound healing.

My name is Marie. I am 41 years of age and married to Liam. I have been working as a complementary healthcare therapist and teacher of anatomy, physiology, massage and reflexology for about seven years. My life changed in 1993 when I encountered Second Aid. Second Aid teaches life skills, how to manage change, trauma, pain, conflict and stress and how to live life fully. It is deeply healing.

Life is always changing, however, and sometimes the change is not one we would choose. My life changed dramatically on 30 June 1998 when I was involved in a serious road traffic accident.

I left home on a bright, sunny, summer's day to return home two weeks later. In that time I had been paralysed, injured, shocked, traumatized, operated on and nursed. My healing had begun.

I have written this story to help me externalize that which is within me, to put my story down on paper so that it can be told, released and freed. This is my story and, if it helps you, that is an added bonus.

Marie O'Brien
Marie O'Brien

X-ray taken in A & E on 30th June 1998 – it is difficult to see the injury due to the button which covers the vertebrae; however, when looked at closely it shows the misalignment of the 5th vertebra of the spinal column

X-ray taken in A & E on 30th June 1998 – it is difficult to see the injury due to the
button which covers the vertebrae; however, when looked at closely it shows the misalignment
of the 5th vertebra of the spinal column

MRI Scan taken after manipulation, weights and clamping into halo (removed for scan) at Southampton MRI scanner on 30th June 1998. It clearly shows the injury, misalignment, compression and trauma onto the spinal cord. This apparently is severe and indicated possible tetraplegia

MRI Scan taken after manipulation, weights and clamping into halo (removed for scan) at
Southampton MRI scanner on 30th June 1998. It clearly shows the injury, misalignment, compression
and trauma onto the spinal cord. This apparently is severe and indicated possible tetraplegia

X-ray taken on 8th September 1998 – it shows the titanium plate, fusion and wiring of my vertebrae. This is a permanent structure

X-ray taken on 8th September 1998 – it shows the titanium plate, fusion
and wiring of my vertebrae. This is a permanent structure

In the Car

The sound of metal on metal, of two cars colliding. I heard whirring, spinning; it was not external to me but internal. I have since tried to rationalize this sound thinking that it could have been the sound of the engine. However, I know the engine sound was quite different and distinct from this internal sound. I believe the sound I heard, which reached a crescendo and died away, was the sound of me coming into consciousness. I believe if the sound had not risen but had lowered then I would have lapsed into unconsciousness. This sound remains with me to this day. It is the sound of awareness, the sound of being alert, the sound of being conscious.

I was conscious as I sat in the interior of the red, three-door Micra. It took a few seconds for me to react as I sat, strapped into the driver's seat, hands clutching the steering wheel, stunned. My dog, a beautiful border terrier had been catapulted from the back seat to the front. He was screeching, screaming, panicking and trying to jump onto my lap to be reassured and comforted. I tried to reach out to him but I could not get my arms to move. I sent the necessary signals from my brain to my arms but they would not respond. I tried again, and again, and again but nothing happened. I tried to communicate with my legs, nothing happened, no response, and I knew; I knew I was paralysed. This predicament was very serious; I had spinal injuries. I called out, "Oh God, please help me. Daddy, please help me. Mummy, please help me. Guardian Angel come to my aid. All forces of healing, love and goodness please come to my assistance. Please help me and my dog." And there was silence, then a sound of whispering and again silence.

My eyes were the only part of my body that I could move and it was through them my situation was observed. My dog was now in front of the passenger's seat having a seizure, breathing erratically and flailing about. I thought he was dying and I could do nothing to help, I could not reach out to stroke and comfort him; he was in his pain as I was in mine.

My left hand slipped from the steering wheel onto the passenger seat and I moved with the thud of my arm dropping. It was into this position that I came to rest and it was in this position I would have to be found. Any movement now could mean the difference between life and death.

My driver's window was open and the driver of the other car was talking to me. I asked him to turn the key in the ignition as there was smoke coming from my engine and to get me help quickly. His hands were shaking as he reached in to turn the key. He was panicking. Two cars pulled up; both drivers were forestry workers. (I was on forestry commission land. Farley Mount is a place of natural beauty with trees stretching for as far as the eye can see, a favourite place for dog walkers and ramblers, a place of exquisite beauty. I had just collected my dog, Ricky, from the groomer and was driving home along these narrow, forestry commission roads. The roads weave and twist, trees obscure vision, and so it is necessary to drive slowly and carefully. I was driving at 20 mph when I saw a car travelling towards me at a colossal speed, on my side of the road. There was no escape, no time to take evasive action, no place to go: impact was imminent.)

A man came to the window, said his name was Phil, and to hang on as an ambulance was on its way. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him, this kind man leaning into the car talking gently, reassuringly and I recognized him. I had seen him before. In that instant I knew that he was the one to help my dog and to phone my husband, Liam, and tell him what had happened. Phil lifted Ricky from the car and carried him off. Now the emergency services could get to me.

The ambulance arrived. Angus, the paramedic, was the first person to speak to me. He was in the back seat of the car; I could not see him but he kept talking to reassure me. Then Maggie, a fellow Scot, positioned herself in front of me. I told them all that my body was telling me – I couldn't move, I appeared to have spinal injuries, and my arms and chest were excruciatingly painful. The paramedics skillfully and gently secured me and, with the help of the fire service, released me from the car. As they did so, my right leg moved.

I lay looking up into the perspex dome of the ambulance. Overhanging the Perspex, the leaves and branches of the trees bent to caress the space which I now occupied and I prayed: "Trees please help me, earth mother please help me, all the birds of the air please help me, all the creatures of the land please help me, all the angels of the heavens and the earth please help me, father source please help me, all heaven and earth please come to my aid and keep me safe", and from within I heard, "Marie you are in safe hands; trust, all will be well."

As I lay in the ambulance that carried me away from the countryside, from the car, from my dog, I prayed, I listened, I talked silently to myself, I trusted.

In the Hospital

The emergency department began the process of questioning me: Who are you…? What is your address…? Who is your next of kin? A few minutes later, Liam arrived – Phil had phoned! What a sight met him – still on the spinal board, head strapped up, collar on and weeping. Liam's presence reassured me and I knew that I was safe.

They X-rayed me. Now they knew the extent of my injuries – broken neck with a dislocation onto the spinal cord (bilateral facet dislocation of C6/7). They checked my reflexes – the power had gone from my limbs. To release pressure on my spinal cord, I was sedated and weights were applied to my head. Again my leg moved. Now they could now take me, with a police escort, on a 20-mile round trip to an MRI scanner in Southampton. The ambulance travelled slowly down the M3 motorway. On this night England were playing Argentina in the World Cup. This normally busy road was clearer than it had ever been on a Tuesday night in the summer of 1998.

Back in Winchester I was admitted to the orthopaedic ward. Throughout the night I was aware of the nurse monitoring my condition. I spoke to my body and thanked it for bringing me this far.

The Next Day

At 8.30 am Mr John Fowler, the orthopaedic consultant, told me the extent of my injuries and that he would operate today. The operation, he explained, would be major and there were no guarantees. Either they could release the pressure on my spinal cord and get some movement back or I would revert back to the way I had been: paralysed. I thanked him for his honesty and knew he would use all his skills to heal me; now it was up to me to harness all my skills.

Within Me

I was in a precarious situation. I could not get up and walk away; all I could do to help was co-operate with what was going on around and within me. So I set about ensuring that when this was over I could say, "I did as much as I could possibly do to assist my healing process. I could not have done more." My internal communication, my love for Liam and relationships with others were as good as could be. If there was any time in my life when I could pull through from a major crisis this was it. I have been encouraged throughout life and by Second Aid to respect my body, my mind and my spirit and so I spoke to each. To my mind I said thank you for staying awake, alert, aware and for not running riot with alternative frightening scenarios. To my body I explained that surgery was necessary to restore it to health. I explained that the spinal area was in trauma and broken; it had been dis-placed, dis-located and as a unit we, all the cells in my body, would have to unite as one to bring the displacement back into place. I told my body that whatever happened I would always be grateful for its co-operation and support in my life. My body, which had overcome asthma and cancer, was now preparing for the biggest operation of its life. I asked it not to fight, to go gently, and to trust the people who would help and let them relocate the area that was causing the rest of my body pain. I asked my body to surrender to all that was happening and all would be well. To my spirit, I thanked it for loving me, supporting me, guiding me, honouring me, and for keeping me safe. And to all that is seen and unseen I sent a prayer of thanks – I was still alive; I had been held safe.

The Operation

It was in this spirit of acceptance and co-operation that I entered the operating theatre without fear or anxiety. Whatever would be, would be. I had done all I could do. I was now in the hands of the skilled surgeon, anaesthetist, theatre staff etc. My surgeon came within a quarter of a millimetre of my spinal cord as he cleared the dislocation (posterior decompression and wire, anterior decompression and fusion).


The operation was a success. I was united as one again. Now my body would need patience and time to recover from the trauma and the full impact of a broken neck and nerve damage. Two weeks later I said goodbye to the excellent nursing staff and walked out of hospital.


So why have I been healed from an injury which can result in limb paralysis? I believe it is a combination of factors. The ambulance crew reached me in the 'Golden Hour'. I then came into the hands of a skilled team and consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr John Fowler. If it were not for his dedication and skill I would not be alive and mobile today. He replaced my head onto my shoulders and performed intricate surgery to heal the physical displacement. He has stated that I am an unusual case – a first, in his experience, as he has never known anyone to walk away from the degree of injury I sustained.

What Other Factors Helped Me Walk Away From This Experience?

There are many. However, prior to and since the accident, my training with Judy Fraser, the founder of Second Aid and a skilled psycho-spiritual director, profoundly helped me. Second Aid deals with inner crisis, awareness, understanding yourself and your potential for healing. It teaches about the universal human energy system, the connection of the body, mind, emotions and spirit, and communication to the core of your being, your Soul, in order to heal and live fully. It has enhanced my life and, I believe, equipped me to heal.

Together these essential areas of life kept me safe. To all involved in my healing I am deeply grateful.

At Home

My husband Liam, family and friends supported me back to health. The family stayed for three months. As one left another arrived, until I was well enough to be on my own. They rallied round to be with us, to reassure us that they loved and cared. They came, they stayed, they nursed, they cleaned, they showered me, they washed my hair, they cooked, they sat, they watched, they waited, they prayed, they comforted, they encouraged, they loved me back to health. The family nurtured and supported Liam. A trusted massage therapist and friend, whom I had trained years earlier, placed her caring hands onto my injured sensitive body and massaged me gently and regularly. To Liam, whose love strengthened me, to friends, and to each and every member of both our families I extend my love and thanks.

Ricky, our little dog, suffered trauma and a dislocated hip. Of the myriad vets in the city, Phil took him to our vet. He is now well.

And Now

I move with ease, feel strong, healthy and happy to be here and to have life. I honour every movement and know it is a gift. People who meet me now would not know what I have experienced. My consultant has commented, "You are the luckiest person I have ever met!"

I have been to the edge and, because I stepped so close, people have told me what I mean to them and I have told those I love what they mean to me. Most people never truly know how people feel about them until they are dead. I am alive and mobile and delighted to be so.

Thank You

Angels come in all different shapes and sizes, some seen and some unseen. I am grateful to the Source of all Life in whose hands I was ultimately held, to my surgeon, to Second Aid, to every cell within me and to all who came to my aid and used their skills to heal. It is with this knowledge and gratitude that I walk forward into life.

Thank God


  1. Svetlana said..

    Marie, I'm are my hero from now on!!! All you described is so familiar to me......wish I were same lucky and walk away from hospital 15 years ago!!!! Thank you for sharing this with the is so important, so actual, so helpful!!!! Love you, xxxxxxx

  2. Pinar said..

    Hello Marie,
    Your story is so much like mine.. I was, too, so lucky and not paralyzed after the accident. My c5 and c6 were both broken. It's been 8 months after the operation now, you can imagine how everything's changed spiritually and physically.. I still have aches and I started to research on internet if there are any examples I can get some information then I found your article. I wonder how good is your physical health now and how long it took to be ok after the accident ? I have aches on my neck and back, cannot work whole day without resting time to time..
    Is there any recommendations from you to me ? :)
    All the best,

  3. Marie said..

    To answer your question Pinar, I am now totally well and no-one would ever know as I move freely, titanium plate in neck, vertebra wired and all is well. I would please ask anyone who is experiencing the pain of this trauma to go with it, don't rush the healing process, believe that you are healing and let the healing unfold. Healing takes us to scary places that we have never visited's part of the healing journey. It may feel we are going backwards but hold on to the belief and take heart. Others have travelled a path that is pain and the unknown and your nerves, your nervous system needs you to be clear and focussed on healing. Healing takes many forms. Go with it....and trust. I wonder how you are now Pinar? I hope your healing is ongoing. I wish you all well.
    Svetlana, love you. X

  4. Marie said..

    Please note, my new email address is:

  5. Marie said..

    I wrote this article 14 years ago and contine to be well. I have not been receiving your comments so excuse delay in replying. Please know, healing is possible. One thing I have learned is this. Accept where you are at, don't rush the healing process, love what lovingly to yourself and your pain. You are healing......not tomorrow or next are healing now. Tell yourself that you are healing and love what is....even the trauma....because when you accept and focus on healing and respond with gentleness the energy of healing is mobilised and great things happen. Heal well. X"

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