Gruesome Injuries That People Didn't Know They Had

Suffering a traumatic injury of the sort that can disable or kill you is often a life-altering event. The mental trauma that comes with having a brush with the ol' Grim Reaper cannot be taken lightly, and depending upon the severity of the injury, one's life can look a lot different than it did before even after recovery is complete. Those who were dealt such a hand and lived to tell the tale, though, ordinarily have one thing in common — they were usually aware of the injury when it occurred. Usually, but not always.

Believe it or not, there have been several well-documented cases of people who got hurt badly enough and did not realize for a time that the injury had even occurred. Sometimes, this period of blissful ignorance is just minutes, or hours; others, it is years, and in a few very rare cases, a whole lot of years. Fair warning: To paraphrase the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, if you are squeamish, some of these cases may make you squeam.

QB Jim McMahon walked around with a broken neck

Former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon is, of course, best known for leading perhaps the most dominant team in the history of football: the 1985 Chicago Bears, who steamrolled (and rapped) their way to victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. After parting ways with the Bears, McMahon played for a handful of other teams before hanging up his cleats, including the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he was calling signals in 1993. During a game that year against the New York Giants, McMahon suffered what was thought at the time to be a concussion after a particularly gnarly tackle, getting squished between a pair of Giants linemen. McMahon sat out a few plays and finished the game; he then played three more years in the NFL, retiring in 1996. In 2010, he found out that concussion was actually a broken neck. 

"I guess they never caught it with any X-rays the next three years because I passed every physical," McMahon explained to Twin Cities Pioneer Press in 2020. "They told me that the C6 and C7 vertebrae were cracked and compressed, which means they were squished together and cracked at the ends." These days, McMahon makes regular visits to a chiropractor to keep headaches at bay — which, all things considered, isn't too much of a pain in the neck.

A knife lived in Li Fuyan's head

In 2011, a news item made the rounds about a Chinese man named Li Fuyan who had been the victim of a mugging. Li wasn't famous, and the crime wasn't particularly noteworthy; it had occurred four years prior, and Li may have forgotten all about it if not for a nagging, persistent pain in his head, accompanied by some trouble breathing. After finally breaking down and going to the doctor, they were pretty quickly able to determine what the issue was: Li was suffering from a slight case of having been stabbed in the head. More specifically, the mugger had broken off his blade inside Li's skull — and the darned thing, rusting away, was still in there.

Somehow Li, who had been stabbed in the lower right jaw, had put up with his health issues for all that time without once suspecting that they were due to the unwelcome presence of a slowly corroding four-inch blade in his cranium. Surgeons were able to remove the blade, which had miraculously not caused any horrifying infections despite its condition. Speaking with broadcaster CCTV (via CBS News), Yuxi City People's Hospital surgeon Xu Wen remarked that it was "very strange as to how the blade got into his head."

A Polish man lived with a gunshot wound to the head

In 2010, it was reported that a Polish man living in Germany had presented with a unique condition. He had, he believed, a cyst on the back of his head that had been causing him some discomfort, and he was keen to have the thing removed. To the surprise of the attending physicians, though, it was no cyst that he was being troubled by — it was a gunshot wound, sustained years earlier.

According to Reuters, the man subsequently remembered having been struck in the back of the head while ever-so-slightly drunk at a New Year's Eve party in 2004 or 2005. The man simply figured somebody must have given him the ol' rabbit punch or something and just dealt with his lingering sore head since, as a police spokesperson explained, he "wasn't really one for going to the doctor." (You don't say.) There was no proof of foul play, this spokesperson continued, because it was conceivable that the injury could have been caused by celebratory gunfire, "a shot fired up in the air which entered his head on the way down." So, doctors just removed the pesky bullet and sent the man on his way, presumably with advice to either stay away from rowdy parties or wear tactical gear. 

Dante Autullo got nailed

Guns are scary, and knives are scary, so it stands to reason that nail guns — which are basically guns that shoot tiny knives — are really scary. But some DIY types insist on using them anyway, despite the fact that hammers exist, and that nail guns don't really seem to be necessary unless you're building a DIY house. One man, Chicago resident Dante Autullo, would likely agree — because one day, while working in his garage, he got bitten about as badly as one can be by a nail gun. Bitten right on the ol' brain, in fact.

That's right — after his nail gun fired an errant nail somehow, Autullo just paused his work briefly, looked for the nail, then carried on working after he couldn't find it. He thought it had gone flying past his head, but it had not; it had gone flying into his head, causing only a small wound that apparently didn't bleed very much, and lodging itself in his brain. After feeling nauseous and coming down with a humdinger of a headache the next day at work, he went to the doctor, where an X-ray revealed that Autullo was walking around with an injury that really should have killed him on the spot. Surgery removed the nail, which Autullo should probably wear on a chain around his neck to remind him never to use a nail gun again.

Dahlia Fink had the ultimate bad back

An ace softball player in high school with a scholarship to Bentley University in Boston, Dahlia Fink was on the fast track to sports stardom at the collegiate level until a problem arose — a nagging, mysterious pain in her back. Being prone to simply pressing on through injury, she didn't let herself be bothered by it — until a car accident terribly exacerbated whatever was going on back there, and the pain level became untenable.

Soon unable to do pretty much anything without excruciating pain and fearing for the status of her scholarship, Fink bounced around to a bunch of different doctors, most of whom were extremely unhelpful (one even insisted her pain was all in her head and suggested a sports psychologist). Pediatric spine surgeon Dr. David Skaggs, though, knew immediately what the issue was, having seen it before in professional and Olympic-level athletes: an errant bone chip. "Dahlia basically had a broken spine," Dr. Skaggs told "Her bone had a fracture [of] approximately 5 millimeters ... in the joint of her spine where the two bones should move smoothly together." After surgery and a mere four weeks of rehabilitation, Fink was back to doing what she does best — and shortly after that, she was doing it in college as a starting pitcher for Bentley's team.

Cameron Kelly brushed off a gunshot wound

In 2007, high school senior Cameron Kelly had a bit of a scare while walking to school at De La Salle Institute in Chicago. He saw a group of youths bolting toward him, and as they approached, he heard a single gunshot, prompting him to dive behind a bus for cover. When the commotion had passed, he continued on to school, a grueling walk of about 60 city blocks. Meeting up with his friends, he joked about his adventure, saying that he was a bit sore from an upper body workout the previous day — and that he "felt like [he] got shot," according to the Chicago Tribune. Thing is, he had — and when he took of his jacket, his buddies gently informed him of the fact.

The slug had entered his back and lodged near his armpit, and when he was taken for examination at a nearby hospital, it was determined to be the best course of action to patch him up without removing the bullet. Speaking with the Tribune, the boy's mother succinctly remarked on the sadness and the absurdity of the situation: "Unfortunately, a kid walking across the street and getting shot is not so unusual these days," she said. "That he went so far without realizing it is hard to believe."

Florida man shot while sleeping

in 2005, Glen Betterley of Port Orange awoke with blood pouring from his head but didn't seem to think it was terribly odd; he just asked his girlfriend if she had hit him (to which she replied that she didn't know), wiped off all that gross red stuff, and laid back down. Shortly, though, he found he was unable to sleep because more of that red stuff was coming out of his head. So, he got up, drove to work to leave a note for his boss saying that he was going to mosey on down to the hospital, and went to get himself checked out.

The problem was, of course, a bullet that had entered by way of Betterley's forehead, and which was presently chilling in his brain. Surgeons were able to remove it, and Betterley recovered. When police tracked down his girlfriend to try to find out what happened, she shot herself while on the phone, dying by suicide. "I can't believe it that she did this," Betterley told the Tampa Bay Times. "We were going to get married in February. . . . I don't understand it."

Richard Petty lived long after breaking his neck

They don't call racing legend Richard Petty "The King" for nothing. Before retiring in 1992, he amassed astonishing career stats: a whopping 200 wins, 123 poles, seven championships, seven Daytona 500 victories, and a partridge in a pear tree. Petty was simply in a class by himself, and like that other notable Petty, he would not back down and was always runnin' down a dream. Unfortunately, early in his career, he experienced a bit of a breakdown, one that could have prevented him from becoming the legend he did.

In 1980 during a race at Pocono, Petty was doing well until, about a third of the way through the race, he lost control and slammed his car into a catch fence. Suspecting that he had a neck injury, he directed his crew chief to bring him to the hospital, where it was revealed that he had broken his neck ... at some undetermined point which, judging by how the cracked vertebra was healed and calcified, must have been years before. Petty's assessment of how this could have happened deserves to be chiseled into the base of a statue of him: "Well, I probably broke it sometime when I broke something else [that] hurt worse," he told Graham Bensinger in 2016 (via Sportscasting). "Your body can only hurt one place at a time."

Jin Guangying lived a lifetime with a bullet in her head

Way back in 1943, tragedy befell Chinese teenager Jin Guangying as she went to meet her grandfather, a resistance fighter, in the province of Jiangsu. Japanese patrol opened fire on the poor girl, striking her in the head. Jin fell down with what should have been a mortal injury, but she awoke a short time later with her head bandaged, miraculously still alive. The bullet that should have killed her instead only gave her a headache ... for 64 years.

According to her family (via Reuters), Jin lived with a host of problems and would often have severe headaches, speak in gibberish, and even foam at the mouth — all symptoms that her family chalked up to a brain tumor. "Because our family was poor, we were never able to have her taken for a thorough check-up," explained Wang Zhengping, Jin's daughter — that is, until 2007, when doctors finally removed the bullet from the brain of the 77-year old Jin. A military expert verified that the bullet was indeed one in use by the Japanese army during the time period in which Jin was shot, confirming that it was that fateful, long-ago encounter that changed the trajectory of Jin's entire life.

Dan Powers survived a slight case of knife to the head

In 2007, United States Army Sgt. Dan Powers was in Baghdad, trying to figure out what might have been the possible cause of an explosion in the eastern part of the city. He did not get to complete his investigation, as he was interrupted by a young Iraqi man who rushed him from behind in attack mode. Speaking with ABC News, Powers described the attack: "It felt like someone kind of clothesline tackled me and a thump on the side of the head, like a bang." Powers reacted with lightning quickness, slamming the guy who had sucker punched him to the ground; the attacker was then corraled by a fellow soldier and given over to an Iraqi security patrol. Powers, however, had not been sucker punched — he had been sucker stabbed.

"He had no idea what had really happened," explained medic Ryan Webb, who attended to Powers. "I did have to fight a few people off that came by and were like, 'Whoa, you've got a knife sticking out of your head.'" Indeed, he did — the attacker had oh-so-craftily deposited a 9-inch blade into the skull of Powers, who amazingly remained conscious (that is, did not faint dead away) even after he realized what had happened. He was whisked away to a hospital, and after treatment that involved the removal of the huge knife in his head, Powers made a full recovery.

Alfie Tyson-Brown, the boy with the broken neck

In 2007, 14-year-old British teenager Alfie Tyson-Brown, an active lad who had enjoyed all manner of athletic pursuits for his entire life, was admitted to the hospital when he began suffering blackouts and episodes wherein he would lose his motor coordination. It was a mysterious condition for such a youngster to be afflicted with, but the mystery was solved pretty quickly. Doctors determined that Tyson-Brown — who it must be stressed was extremely active, counting rugby and surfing among his favorite pastimes — was suffering from a broken neck, an injury that had likely occurred when he had been playing. As a far younger child. That is, as a toddler.

Tyson-Brown, as it turned out, had been living with that horrendous injury for at least 10 years, which is somehow the length of time it took for it to become an issue. After three and a half hours of surgery and presumably a bit of recovery time, he was once again as good as new. Speaking with The Mirror, surgeon Evan Davies, who was likely still sweating bullets, said, "I've never seen anything like it ... It was incredibly frightening — I was aware that if I got it wrong he could either have a stroke or be paralyzed." Fortunately, Davies got it right — and Tyson-Brown, blowing raspberries at death, returned to being a rambunctious boy.