Brighton woman survives ‘internal decapitation’

Local News

BRIGHTON, N.Y. (WROC) — A Brighton woman has survived a catastrophic injury that kills most people.

In July of last year Ellen Bernitt slammed head first into the ocean floor while on vacation with her family. She suffered what medical experts called “internal decapitation.”

This rare injury happens when the ligaments that attach a person’s skull to their spine are severed.

“Her head wasn’t really where it should be in relation to her spine,” said Dr. Anthony Petraglia, a neurosurgeon at Rochester Regional Health. “It was completely dislocated from where it should be sitting on her neck.”

Bernitt suffered the injury while she was body surfing with her grandkids.

“I heard the crunch and the crunch, crunch,” said Bernitt. “I came up and my neck was really sore. I was in pain and I knew I better not move.”

She was taken to the hospital where doctors told her she would recover in about 12 weeks.

“They told me I was fine and wear a collar,” said Bernitt. “They wanted me to wear this collar they had fitted me for and they sent me home.”

However, everything was not fine. Little did she know the neck collar was keeping her alive.

“If that collar had been removed eventually my head would have done something that would have severed my spinal cord,” said Bernitt.

Dr. Anthony Petraglia, a neurosurgeon at Rochester Regional Health, had to use metal plates to reattach her head to her neck.

“This is typically seen in situations where people can have sudden death at the time of the injury,” said Petraglia.

Bernitt lost the ability to turn her neck from side to side, but she is back doing what she loves best.

“I was pretty determined to do everything I could do to recover to play with my grandaughter and spend time with family and friends doing what I love to do,” said Bernitt. “I am lucky I am able to do that.”

It took about a year for Bernitt to recover. With some minor adjustments the avid golfer is back into the swing of things.

According to medical experts only 30% of the people who suffer from this kind of injury survive.

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