On Saturday, Xavier Cunningham was playing in his treehouse with a friend when a swarm of yellow jackets started stinging them. As they tried escaping, the 10-year-old boy fell from the treehouse and landed on a foot-long metal meat skewer. It went through his face, stopping at the base his skull. Yet only a few days later, the boy is recovering with no major damage.
“It is just a miracle,” his mom Gabrielle Miller, 39, of Harrisonville, Missouri, told TODAY. “Everything is looking really good. We are looking to be home soon. He is just doing fabulous."
While a team of about 100 medical staff were involved in the seven-hour procedure to remove the skewer, Dr. Koji Ebersole said that Xavier was extremely lucky.
“The skewer missed every critical structure,” Ebersole, director of endovascular neurosurgery at the University of Kansas Health System, told TODAY. “It was unbelievable that it passed to the depth it did and didn’t hit anything critical. It missed the eye, it missed the brain, it missed the spinal column.”
A freak accident
Miller first knew something was wrong when she heard screaming. Then she saw her son and panicked: Xavier had six inches of a metal rod sticking out of his face. She calmly packed him into the car and headed to the local emergency room.
“It’s just what you do as a mom. You want to fall apart, but you can’t. You just have to be there,” she said.
During the ride, Xavier first worried about the yellow jackets, but soon realized how serious his injury was.
“He was saying he was dying. I told him he was going to be fine,” she recalled. “He said, ‘No, I can feel it. I am dying.’”
Doctors at the emergency room transferred him to Children’s Mercy Kansas City, but the doctors there soon realized they were not equipped to treat him and sent him to the University of Kansas Hospital. When Ebersole first saw the boy, he knew this was a unique case.
“He is wide awake and he is moving and talking,” Ebersole said. “But we were worried about the blood vessels.”
The skewer was lodged between the carotid and vertebral arteries along the jugular on his left side. Doctors didn’t know if the skewer had damaged the arteries or veins. If they were injured, removing the skewer could cause Xavier to bleed profusely, suffer a stroke or make it tough for him to breathe. What’s more, the skewer had a jagged edge on the one end to keep something like a hot dog from falling off it. Ebersole worried removing that part would cause more damage.
“Are these vessels injured and what is the extent and how can I avoid more injury trying to get the thing out?” he recalled thinking.
Taking the time needed
Meanwhile, Xavier calmly waited. He held his mom’s hand and dozed off. At midnight, doctors realized it would be best to wait until the morning to have an entire team involved in the removal. Xavier would have to lay still throughout the night, but Ebersole felt the boy could do it.
“None of this would have worked if the child was anxious or nervous. Xavier said he was on board with that and held steady all night,” he said.
The next morning, the team removed the skewer. Eventually, one of the doctors pulled it out, a process that took about 10 to 15 minutes. The jugular suffered some damage, but had already started healing. The team was amazed — the skewer barely injured anything. Xavier only has a small bandage on his face.
“It was just unbelievable,” Ebersole said.
“He is an amazing kid,” she said. “I can’t ask for anything more. I have my boy. Everyone is doing good.”
Xavier’s already playing Xbox and is anxious to get home to his dog, Max. The family feels grateful for the medical staff and God. While everyone was impressed by Xavier’s cool demeanor, he confessed it was an act.
“Last night he got all teary-eyed. He said, ‘I know everyone is saying I was strong, but I was scared,’” his mom said. "He was such a trooper."