A 10-year-old from Harrisonville, Missouri, is recovering in hospital after a foot-long meat skewer impaled his face in a freak accident last Saturday.
Xavier Cunningham was playing with his friends in a neighbor’s treehouse that was about 15 feet off the ground when a swarm of yellow jackets began attacking the boys. As Xavier scrambled down the ladder to escape, one of the hornets stung his hand so he reached out to swat it away, his mother, Gabrielle Miller, told Medical News Network, which is produced by the University of Kansas Health System, in Kansas City, Kansas, where Xavier was ultimately treated.
As a result, he lost his grip and fell about four or five feet, directly onto a sharp metal meat skewer that the boys had found earlier in a nearby field and stuck into the ground under the treehouse.
The skewer pierced through Xavier’s face, entering just to the right of his nose, and penetrated his entire head until it came out at the back of his skull. “He said he just felt something really sharp and hot,” Miller said.
Xavier immediately ran to his mom to get help, still swatting off the yellow jackets as he entered the house. Miller said that when she saw her son with the skewer stuck in his face, her first thought was that he had been shot in the face by an arrow. On the way to the hospital, Xavier began to grow more upset. “I’m dying mom...I can feel it,” he told his mother.
Miller rushed her son to a local hospital, where doctors did an X-ray to assess the damage and decided to transfer him to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Xavier remained calm, his mom said, and his first concern was whether his friends made it out of the hornet-filled treehouse okay (they did).
That night, he was transferred a second time to the University of Kansas Health System, where a team of about 100 doctors from different specialities devised a plan to safely remove the skewer, which had narrowly missed major blood vessels, brain structures, and other organs, Dr. Koji Ebersole, director of endovascular neurology at University of Kansas Health System, told Medical News Network.
“If it hit his carotid artery, which it was immediately adjacent to, I think he probably would’ve had such dramatic bleeding in a short amount of time that it would’ve swelled up in the neck and closed off his airway and he wouldn’t have survived it,” Ebersole said.
As the team of specialists prepared for the high-risk surgery, Xavier waited patiently with the skewer still sticking out of his face and a bandage covering his eyes and nose, Miller said. The doctors and Xavier’s family decided it was best to hold off on the removal until they came up with the safest plan possible, Ebersole said.
Xavier spent Saturday night singing and praying with his parents, occasionally dozing off only to wake in a panic and ask “am I alive?” Miller said.
The surgery took place Sunday morning, and the specialists had come up with several backup plans to deal with any worst-case scenarios and complications.
The way the skewer went through Xavier’s head without hitting any major vessels was a “one-in-a-million shot,” Dr. Kiran Kakarala, a head and neck surgeon at University of Kansas Health System who also treated Xavier, told Medical News Network. “Our job was basically to replicate that one-in-a-million shot by taking it out without damaging anything,” Kakarala said.
The surgery took hours and required the collaboration of surgeons specializing in the brain, ENT (ear, nose, throat), trauma, and more. Fortunately, they were able to remove the object from Xavier’s head without causing any damage.
“The plan would not have worked if he wasn’t as brave as he was ... his ability to be calm in a very dramatic situation is what helped us to finish the task,” Ebersole said. At no point did Xavier become agitated and try to move or pull out the skewer, which could’ve made his situation a lot worse.
Xavier is recovering well — he’s able to sit up and talk, and also play video games. Although it may take some time for Xavier’s wounds to heal, his doctors expect him to make a full recovery and go back to living a normal life. “It’s a pure miracle,” Miller said.
As for the skewer, Xavier told his parents he wanted to keep it.