Martha Williams - Neck Fracture

Martha Williams, running Boston Marathon after neck surgery


In December of 2010, Martha Williams traveled from St. Charles with her family to Indiana for their annual Christmas break trip. Martha visits her large family every year around Christmas. During this trip, while sledding down a steep hill, Martha’s sled flipped over and she landed on her head. She recalls a little tenderness in her neck during their four hour drive home but assumed she strained a neck muscle.

Martha is also an avid runner and would log 15-20 miles a week. She says, “I took it easy those couple of weeks because running would have hurt too much but I still got in three, two to two and a half mile walks during that time.” Over the next two weeks, Martha’s neck bothered her more and more. She recalls sneezing was painful. Her treatment of acetaminophen and ice was not working. Martha felt her neck was not getting better and made an appointment with her primary care physician, who in turn sent Martha for an X-ray.  

Martha Williams, fractured neck

Martha’s doctor called her almost immediately. “He told me I had a broken neck and I needed to lie down and call an ambulance.” Martha was in disbelief and had her husband drive her to Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital. The ER doctors confirmed her primary care physician’s suspicions — she had broken C2 vertebra. Due to the advanced spine expertise from Washington University Orthopedics, Martha was transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital.  

Martha says, “I was in shock. I had walked around with a broken neck for two weeks. I was told numerous times how I lucky I was.”  

At Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Martha was seen by Lukas Zebala, MD, a spine specialist with Washington University Orthopedics. “Dr. Zebala was very calming and assuring. He was confident he would fix my neck and get me back to running,” says Martha.  

“Martha had a Hangman’s fracture of the second cervical vertebra. She was lucky that despite not having any immobilization for her broken neck for two weeks, the broken pieces remained aligned and minimally displaced. This was important for her treatment because it would allow me to fix the broken bone without having to permanently fuse two of her cervical vertebra. Not fusing Martha’s neck was my goal because she was young and active,” explains Dr. Zebala.  

Martha recalls, “I was in a neck brace for four months. I had to go in for X-rays to monitor my progress. Once I was out of the brace, I had to have a procedure to remove the wires but then shortly after started physical therapy. The pain after both surgeries was nothing compared with the initial pain of injury. I was so thankful to have the break stabilized and eventually healed.”

“Martha’s surgery went perfect. I was able to fix the C2 fracture directly with wires. Her recovery went great because Martha was a fantastic patient who was very compliant with my postoperative directions. Once her C2 healed, I took out the wires and on postoperative X-rays. It is difficult to tell she ever had a broken neck,” says Dr. Zebala. 

Martha Williams, Boston Marathon after neck fracture

By June of 2011, just six months after neck surgery, Martha was able to run again. In April of 2019, Martha checked off a goal on her bucket list. She qualified and ran in the Boston Marathon. She says, “I am back and healthier than ever.”  

Dr. Zebala says, “I have really enjoyed seeing Martha continue her passion of running and competing in marathons. Her accomplishment of qualifying and running in The Boston Marathon is tremendous, a testament to her determination to continue to have a normal life, after a very serious neck injury. Being able to treat patients like Martha gives me great satisfaction and makes me love my job.”

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