AZ Guardsman back on his feet after internal decapitation - Tucson News Now

AZ Guardsman back on his feet after internal decapitation

Army Spc. Rashaad Gregory walks out of the hospital with his father, Ken, after spending four months recovering from an internal decapitation. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Amanda Hammond) Army Spc. Rashaad Gregory walks out of the hospital with his father, Ken, after spending four months recovering from an internal decapitation. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Amanda Hammond)
PHOENIX (CBS5) -

Army Spc. Rashaad Gregory knows he is lucky to be alive.

Gregory, who repairs air conditioning and refrigeration with the National Guard's 3666th Support Maintenance Company in Phoenix, is a literal medical miracle.

The 19-year-old defied medical expectations after his skull was torn from his spine in a car crash while en route to Guard drills July 28.

The injury, occipitocervical dislocation, almost always leads to death or paralysis at the very least.

"When someone suffers this type of injury, the head and spine are so very unstable that even gentle movement of a patient can lead to death," said Dr. Kumar Kakarla, Gregory's neurosurgeon at St. Joseph's Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

But Barrow's neurological team, led by Kakarla, re-fused Gregory's skull and spine with an innovative surgery perfected at Barrow known as occipitocervical fusion surgery.

Surgeons used a titanium rod and screws - and a piece of Gregory's own rib - to reattach the skull with the spine.

Gregory needed three more surgeries to repair his internal organs and spent four months in the hospital.

Now, while undergoing outpatient physical therapy, he is walking and talking about plans to go to college and pursue a career as an elementary school teacher.

He also hopes to inspire others.

"A positive attitude changes everything," Gregory said. "I can't turn back the clock and wish this injury didn't happen to me. Instead, I choose to move forward and make every day a gift."

According to a Department of Defense news release, Gregory said doctors credited his friend and fellow guardsman, Pfc. Edwin Carter, with helping save Gregory's life.

Carter was driving when their vehicle collided with another July 28. Carter stabilized Gregory's head and neck until paramedics arrived, according to the release.

Gregory's father, Ken, said he was originally told by hospital staff the prognosis for his son was bleak, that his son would be a quadriplegic and dependent on a ventilator for the rest of his life, according to the release.

But Barrow's neurosurgeons went to work.

"At Barrow, we have one of the world's largest group of survivors with this injury and Gregory's outcome has been exceptional," Kakarla said.

Gregory said his support system played a big factor in his recovery. He credited his church, friends, and the military with helping him during his healing process.

"My family, my dad, my sisters, my brother and my girlfriend were there for me throughout this," said Gregory.

His first platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Tiffany Fisher, was especially instrumental, Gregory said.

"She would always make sure that I was taken care of," Gregory said. "She went above and beyond what she had to do."

"I wanted him to understand that the military is a family," said Fisher, the readiness noncommissioned officer for the 3666th Support Maintenance Company. "He was going to be treated like family and he was going to be supported as if he was a family member."

While in the hospital Gregory's unit promoted him from private first class to specialist.

"When he knew he was getting out of that hospital, all we had to do is make sure his uniform was ready," said Fisher. "Because he wanted to walk out in that uniform."

And that is what he did on Nov. 15, dressed in his uniform, and using a walker for assistance with his father by his side.

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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