As the Los Angeles Angels head into the American League playoffs, they will be remembering a lost teammate: pitcher Nick Adenhart, 22, who died on April 9, only four days into the season, after pitching six scoreless innings in his season debut. He and two friends were killed after their car was hit by a van that ran a red light. The team paid tribute to Adenhart when they clinched their division championship last week. But the team was also aware of another, quieter triumph, perhaps a miracle. Indeed, Jon Wilhite, the fourth person in Adenhart’s car, shouldn’t be alive. The violent collision ripped his skull from his spine, resulting in what doctors call internal decapitation. It is almost always fatal. When Wilhite arrived at the hospital after the savage accident, X-rays and a CAT scan showed that his head was held in place only by muscles and skin. But gentle work by paramedics gave a gifted surgeon the chance to literally screw Wilhite’s head back on his body.
At the very least, the 24-year-old Wilhite should be on a ventilator and in a wheelchair. Instead, only six months after the accident which took the lives of Adenhart, Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart Wilhite walks, talks, lifts weights, jogs and smiles. A catcher on the Cal State Fullerton teams that won the Division 1A College World Series in 2004 and reached the finals in 2006 and ’07, Wilhite would like to play in the alumni game next year. Indeed, on Aug. 29, he threw out the first pitch at the Angels-Athletics game. Once 5 ft. 11 in. and 190 lb., Wilhite has regained 30 of the 40 pounds he lost, and his father Tony jokes that Jon has gained a half-inch in height thanks to the work of Dr. Nitan Bhatia, the chief spine surgeon at UCI Medical Center. Wilhite says, “People say I have really good posture.”
“More than 95% of people who suffer atlanto-occipital dislocation, or internal decapitation, die immediately,” says Bhatia. “Of the 5% who make it to the hospital, half die and the other half are quadriplegics.” Only a handful of patients have recovered as fully as Wilhite has.
Life or death can depend on the blink of an eye or the fraction of an inch. A split-second difference at the intersection that night and the racing minivan driven by Andrew Thomas Gallo would have hit Stewart’s sports coupe only with a glancing blow. Instead, running a red light, Gallo slammed into the Mitsubishi Eclipse at over 65 m.p.h. “right between the wheels direct dead center,” says Wilhite’s father. Meanwhile, a slight quarter-inch movement of Wilhite’s vulnerable spinal cord during his rescue by paramedics or at the hospital and he would be paralyzed or worse, says Bhatia.
“The spinal cord is very sensitive and any minimal pressure on it, twisting or stretching, and it stops working usually permanently,” says the surgeon. The skull sits on the top vertebra “just like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders; that is what C1 does,” says Bhatia, referring to the anatomical designation of the vertebra. In Wilhite’s case, all of the ligaments that hold the skull on top of C1 were “completely torn” and there were small fractures to C1 itself. “It is very unusual today to have three healthy young people die in a car crash,” says Bhatia, 36. “They were hit with an amazing amount of force.” Regarding Wilhite’s internal decapitation, Bhatia says, “Think about the weekly collisions in the National Football League and that neck injuries are relatively rare. That tells you how hard they were hit. I have never seen a car so destroyed.” What saved Wilhite, says Bhatia, is the fact that he is a high-level athlete and that “his neck muscles were strong enough to hold his head in place even after the ligaments were completely torn away and bones broken.”
Paramedics used the “Jaws of Life” to remove the top of the mangled Eclipse and slide a backboard behind Wilhite before carefully lifting him out and placing him in a rigid collar. At the hospital, doctors considered operating immediately to fuse Wilhite’s head back onto his spine, but that was impossible because of Wilhite’s collapsed lungs and brain swelling. Instead, Bhatia and Dr. Doug Kiester attached a Frankenstein-like steel halo to Wilhite’s head to keep his neck in alignment. Six days after the accident, Bhatia led a surgical team of 30 that spent five hours placing a titanium plate at the back of Wilhite’s neck and connecting it to his skull and C3 vertebra with rods and screws. “Everything had to go perfectly,” says Bhatia. Asked if the bones in the vertebra could have shattered when he was drilling the holes, the affable and precise Bhatia answers, “They don’t shatter as long as you do it correctly.” During the operation, a neurological team sent electrical impulses from Wilhite’s brain to his arms and legs to monitor spinal-cord function.
In addition to having his skull unanchored and spinal cord put in mortal danger, Wilhite also suffered a brain injury called “brain shearing.” While a concussion damages the part of the brain that strikes the side of the skull, Bhatia says brain shearing occurs when a powerful blow whiplashes nerve endings across the entire brain. At a charity game at Cal State Fullerton in July, the Wilhite family thanked the paramedics and doctors for saving Jon and offered their condolences and prayers to the Adenhart, Pearson and Stewart families. At the time, Wilhite spoke haltingly, walked stiffly and heavily favored his left side. “His personality was there,” says his father, “but we were afraid he had permanent damage to the right side of his body.” Wilhite says, “When you look at a tape of the event, you can see that I had brain-injury eyes.”
Today, the hitter, who was blessed with 20/15 vision before the accident, says, “My eyes are starting to sync up and track.” To look around, Wilhite must turn his upper body, not his neck. “Will he have a 100% recovery” asks Bhatia. “No, he will never be back to where he was. It will take his body up to 12 to 18 months to heal and recover.” Each one of his injuries broken ribs, collapsed lungs, broken right shoulder blade , his neck and brain “require a lot of energy to heal. It is like having the flu, but 100 times worse,” says Bhatia.
“Jon gets tired real quick,” says his father. “But he has a great attitude.” The son says, “It’s been hard for my parents and family. It’s almost been easier for me because I have a little bit of control.” When Wilhite gets discouraged about his progress, he pulls a picture out of his wallet showing him in the steel halo. “That picture reminds me of how far I’ve come,” he says, adding, “I feel an obligation to spread the word on drinking and driving for Nick, Henry and Courtney. I feel like I could do a lot of good and young people could relate to my story.” Accused drunk driver Gallo has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree murder. Police say Gallo, who has a previous DUI conviction, had nearly triple the legal blood-alcohol level when his minivan slammed into the foursome just as they were about to arrive at a Fullerton dance club to celebrate Adenhart’s hard-won success. A promising pitching prospect, Adenhart had come back from a severe elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, named after the former Los Angeles Dodger pitcher who first successfully underwent the operation for ligament reconstruction.
Sitting in his parents’ home south of Los Angeles in Murrieta Hot Springs, Wilhite addresses the emotional toll of losing three friends. “We have done our best to tackle this as a family. I tell people I am doing good. But there are times when I am a mess. Now, with my rehab schedule reduced, there is more time to think about the others.” In the future, Wilhite hopes to coach and work with kids. And next year, when Bhatia gives him the go-ahead, he wants to try surfing and snowboarding sports that were off-limits when he was a college athlete because of the chance of injury.
Wilhite wore an Angels jersey with black patches carrying Adenhart’s number, 34, and Pearson’s and Stewart’s initials when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the August Angels-Athletics game. When the Angels clinched the American League West Championship on Monday, Adenhart was on the players’ minds. “There isn’t a guy in this locker room who isn’t playing for his memory,” relief pitcher Jason Bulger told the Los Angeles Times. A large photo of Adenhart is on the center-field wall at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Wilhite, a lifelong Los Angeles Dodgers fan, says, “I am pulling for the Angels this year. I hope they go all the way.”
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