Runner says she's "back and healthier than ever"

Martha Williams


Martha Williams checked off a goal on her bucket list in April 2019. She qualified for, and ran, in the Boston Marathon. Although it's an accomplishment only a small percentage of runners can claim, Williams' story might not sound particularly extraordinary -- that is, unless you begin the story in December 2010.

It's a tradition for Martha Williams and her family to travel from St. Charles to Indiana each year during Christmas break to visit other family members. During the annual trip in December 2010, while sledding down a steep hill, Williams' sled flipped over, and she landed on her head. She recalls a little tenderness in her neck during the four-hour drive home but assumed she strained a neck muscle.

Williams, an avid runner, would log 15-20 miles a week. "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," she says.

Over the next two weeks, Williams' neck bothered her more and more. She recalls that sneezing was painful. Her treatment of acetaminophen and ice wasn't working. Williams felt her neck wasn't getting better and made an appointment with her primary care physician, who in turn sent her for an X-ray.

Williams' doctor called her almost immediately. "He told me I had a broken neck and I needed to lie down and call an ambulance." Williams was in disbelief and had her husband drive her to Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital. 

The emergency department doctors confirmed her primary care physician's suspicions -- she had broken her C2 vertebra. Due to the advanced spine expertise from Washington University Orthopedics, Williams was transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. 

"I was in shock," Williams says. "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, Williams was seen by Lukas Zebala, MD, a spine specialist with Washington University Orthopedics. "Dr. Zebala was very calming and reassuring. He was confident he could fix my neck and get me back to running," Williams says. 

"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 vertebrae. Not fusing her neck was my goal because she was young and active," Dr. Zebala explains. 

Martha Williams heals from her neck injury in 2010. 

Williams 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 perfectly. 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," Dr. Zebala says. "Once her C2 healed, I took out the wires, and on postoperative X-rays, it's difficult to tell she ever had a broken neck."

By June 2011, just six months after neck surgery, Williams was able to run again.

After running in the Boston Marathon in April, Williams says, "I'm back and healthier than ever."

Dr. Zebala says, "I have really enjoyed seeing Martha continue her passion for 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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