(HUNTSVILLE, Alabama) — The basic medical term for Mike Sanderson’s condition was “internal decapitation.” His head had been separated from his spine and was hanging by some ligaments.
It was early on the morning of Sept. 19, 2007, a warm, hazy Wednesday in Huntsville.
Sanderson’s truck, hauling more than 34,000 pounds of concrete, had fallen on its side after a wreck near Winchester and Blue Spring roads in northwest Huntsville.
The force of the crash had torn the top vertebra from the base of Sanderson’s skull. Sanderson, then about 330 pounds, was hurled head-first into the passenger’s side of his truck.
Dr. John Johnson, a Huntsville neurosurgeon since 1998, was called in to care for Sanderson. Most neurosurgeons, Johnson knew, would never see a case like this one.
But after two surgeries and almost two months of rehabilitation, something almost as rare happened. Sanderson survived without any paralysis.
Now 36, walking and hindered mainly by an inability to move his head from side to side, Sanderson attributes his recovery, in part, to his girth.
The extra skin and ligaments from his neck had prevented a complete decapitation.
“They said if I was a skinny guy, my head would have been rolling around in the truck,” he said.
But because Sanderson believes something greater was at work, he decided to write a book about his experiences.
His book, scheduled for release in November, is titled, “On the 28th Day, My Eyes Opened.”
For 27 days, Sanderson was unconscious. His head was protected by a metal halo that Johnson had placed on him just hours after the wreck.
“Was he salvageable?” Johnson said. “That was really the question.”
On the morning after the wreck, the process of saving Sanderson became more tedious.
Johnson inserted a wire into Sanderson’s C-1 vertebra, his top vertebra, in a surgery that lasted from three to five hours. Screws also were put into Sanderson’s C-2, 3, 4 and 5 vertebras.
On Oct. 17, the 28th day of his partially induced coma, Sanderson opened his eyes. Surrounded by family, he was informed of the wreck.
“Was anybody else hurt?” he asked.
No, he was told.
“That,” he said, “was a lot of pressure off.”
Telling the world
Sanderson’s day started around 6 a.m. at his home near the dead end of Conley Drive, among the farmland near Meridianville.
At 34, Sanderson had been driving trucks for almost 10 years. He had driven dump trucks, 18-wheelers, linen trucks and concrete trucks.
Since 2003, he had driven for Alabama Concrete on Stringfield Road.
On the morning of Sept. 19, 2007, Sanderson was in good spirits after a recent vacation. He’d just returned from a cruise to five islands, including Puerto Rico.
Arriving at work, he loaded his truck with nine yards of concrete, a full load. Each yard weighed about 3,800 pounds, by Sanderson’s estimate, meaning he was hauling 34,200 pounds.
Sanderson had gone north on Pulaski Pike, then east on Winchester Road, heading for a new subdivision on Winchester. It was between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. when he approached the intersection of Winchester and Blue Spring.
There are conflicting accounts about what happened next. Sanderson says witnesses told him he swerved to avoid an accident in front of him. The police report, Sanderson says, describes his truck about to run a red light and swerving from oncoming traffic.
Either way, the momentum of 34,000 pounds of swerving concrete caused Sanderson’s truck to land on its right side, the passenger side.
Sanderson went head-first toward that side, propelled by the force of the concrete and his 330 pounds.
“It doesn’t get me down like it used to,” Sanderson said. “I’d get up and think about my movement. It’d get me down.”
Since the wreck, he has committed himself to his church, Morris Chapel on Winchester Road. He’s also discovered that he’s a writer.
In January 2008, he began the manuscript of “On the 28th Day, My Eyes Opened.”
“I’m lying face up in a hospital bed,” reads part of the first chapter. “Metal is inserted into my head and both sides of my neck to keep my head intact. There’s a tube in my mouth that’s connected to a machine that keeps forcing air in and out of my lungs. The metal from the halo has dug so deep into my lower back that flesh is exposed. There’s an awful pain in my head and I’m bandaged up like a mummy.”
The book is about 200 pages. BaHar Publishing of Waterloo, Iowa, is the publisher.
“When everybody’s telling me that 97 percent of the people in the whole world don’t make it through and three percent are paralyzed, and I didn’t go through any of that, why not tell the world about it?” Sanderson said.