Shannon Malloy was critically injured Jan. 25 when she was slammed into the dashboard during a car crash. Her skull separated from her spine, although her skin, spinal cord and other internal organs remained intact.
The rare condition is known as clinically as internal decapitation, and it left her with no control over her head.
Dr. Gary Ghiselli, an orthopedic spine surgeon at the Denver Spine Center, said he and his colleagues had never seen such an injury in someone still living.
"I've seen it once before," Ghiselli said, "and, unfortunately, the patient didn't make it."
Physicians in Nebraska, where Malloy lives, didn't have much hope.
"It was just really scary because he just kept saying that 'we've never ever seen this injury in a person that's alive, and you need to say your good-byes now,'" her mother, Robin Frazee, told Denver station KMGH-TV.
Ghiselli said a will to survive kept Malloy, 30, alive long enough for surgeons to insert screws in her head and neck and attach a halo to minimize movement — no easy task.
"My skull slipped off my neck about five times," Malloy said. "Every time they tried to screw this to my head, I would slip."
Doctors eventually stabilized her head and her neck muscles regained strength. The halo has since been removed.
"It's a miracle that she was able to survive from the actual accident," Ghiselli said. "It's a miracle that she's made the progress that she's made."
She still has obstacles to overcome like the nerve damage that makes her eyes cross and a feeding tube because she has difficulty swallowing.
"I would ideally like to be fully recovered. I know that's not going to be a great possibility, but I can come really close though," said Malloy.