TV and movies are full of people who suffer "mortal" wounds and then get up and keep fighting for another half hour. (Like Buffy in the Buffy series finale.) This always seems amazingly unrealistic. But actually in real life, lots of people survive apparently fatal injuries, and walk away.
What allows some people to stay alive after suffering a mishap that ought to be deadly? And what can we learn from those people that might help the rest of us survive getting banged up?
Every day brings a new reminder that bodies are fragile. A chance misstep on the stairs leading to an extremely unlucky fall, an excess of alcohol before bedtime, or a cut that wasn't disinfected properly, can cost you your life. But before barricading yourself in your room filled with bubble wrap and astronaut ice cream, relax a little and take a look at the other side of the coin. It is amazing to contemplate the kinds of things a person can live through. True, most of those things require a doctor's care — but there are people walking around today who provide perfect examples of how to stare in the face of Death and say, "Not today."
For the Love of God, Don't Yank Anything Out of Your Body
One of my most vivid career day memories from childhood was an emergency room doctor who talked to the class. I'm sure she said something about the qualities that one has to have to make it in a high-pressure, mentally and physically challenging career, but I'm not sure any of us paid attention. We were all biding our time until we could ask questions, and the first one out of the first kid's mouth was, "What's the grossest thing you've ever seen?"
Being a good woman, she didn't tell us about bowel impactions or infected eyeballs. Instead, she told us what she knew we wanted to know. "One time a guy came in with both halves of a broom stuck into his belly." Well, that was a story that, we sensed, was rich in narrative drive and character development, and we all perked up. She went on to tell us that the guy and his girlfriend had had an argument over housekeeping, and so the woman had broken a broom in half and embedded both in the guy's abdomen. So that guy was dead, right? No, no, she said. She then described running around the ER getting pillows to brace the brooms and keep them in the guy's belly exactly as they were.
And this is the way to survive the most godawful impaling, stabbing, and crushing injuries that should be killing you. Treat your body as if it were already a murder victim, and don't disturb the scene. Although there are some organs that you need to have fully functioning continuously, most of your organs are on-demand. Take those organs offline, and the body keeps going, as long as it has one thing: blood. Blood keeps cells alive, and blood is what you lose if you yank out whatever foreign object is sticking into your body.
The brooms sticking out of the career day doctor's patient had severed a lot of blood vessels and done a lot of damage, but they'd blocked a lot of the things they'd cut. Imagine sticking a tack very slowly into a balloon. You can actually do this (if the balloon has any give to it) and not pop the thing. Take the tack out, and out the air wooshes. As long as people don't bleed out, their bodies can survive amazing things.
Case in point: A soldier got hit in the stomach with an entire rocket propelled grenade. And a ten-year-old boy survived a sting ray barb through his belly because a nurse on the pier where he was impaled kept people from pulling it out. Perhaps the most horrifying story is of a railroad switchman who slipped and fell in front of a train. The wheels ground over both his legs, and took out his pelvis and one kidney, pretty much cutting him in two. However, the wheels were so solidly lodged against his body that they kept him from bleeding out entirely, and he was saved. He was even lucid enough to call his family while emergency crews worked on him.
Get Fit and Then Relax
Fun fact; children tend to survive long falls and plane crashes more often than adults. A teen survived a fall from The Golden Gate Bridge and managed to be strong enough to swim part of the way to shore, before a coast guard boat rescued him from the water. A ten year old kid survived a recent plane crash.
It's not a coincidence, experts say. Young people have a lot of what it takes to survive a crash built in. First, they have that baby fat. Everyone knows that the best place to land after a long fall is somewhere mushy. Every fraction of a second that people slow down before coming to a stop completely increases their odds of survival. Kids and young people carry this cushion around with them in the form of subcutaneous fat everywhere in their bodies. Even that tiny difference helps keep them alive.
So why don't adults who have a little extra fat survive crashes? Partly because the fat is distributed differently, and partly because, unlike penetrating injuries, which are a test of patience, surviving long falls is kind of an athletic challenge. Keeping fit makes the muscles fuller and firmer, protecting the inner organs. It strengthens the bones. And it maintains overall health. That combination of a lot of subcutaneous fat but an active body is something we're most likely to find in children.
So how can us adults stand a chance? One thing that people really can do to help is limber up. Absorbing the shock with flexible muscles, letting the body absorb the fall, really does help. One man from Russia actually jumped out a five-story office building and lived. He took this opportunity to run up the stairs and jump out again. He lived again. He was, as many people won't be surprised to find out, very drunk. Surviving falls is all about the way the body takes an impact, and it's best to allow the muscles to relax into it, whether its a fall from a plane or from an apartment, than it is to try to resist and increase the speed of the impact.
Tilt Your Head and Hope For the Best
The single most unsurvivable injury that everyone agrees on is a shot to the head. The only place we see anyone walk away alive from that is in the Kill Bill movies. There's no trick to this one — but a surprising amount of people have lived with multiple penetrating injuries to the brain. A man took pruning shears through the eye, when he fell while he was working, and not only lived, but managed to keep his eye. Another man's suicide attempt left him with twelve two-inch-long nails shot into his brain, but still well enough to walk into the hospital some time later complaining of a headache. Doctors didn't even notice anything until they examined his head up close.
But when it comes to head injuries, there's only one star. Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who, after a mishap with some dynamite, got a spike driven all the way through his skull and out the other side. He was up and walking minutes later, but people insisted he be loaded on an ox cart and driven back to town, where a doctor pushed skull fragments back in place and packed gauze on the wound. Over the next month or so, various doctors drained fluid and infection from the skull, but not much else was done. Although Phineas was said to have grown mean and quick-tempered after the injury, he lived.
Brain injuries need three things to be survivable; the correct placement, a lack of swelling, and a lack of bleeding. These people survived because, one way or another, their injuries didn't bleed out into the brain, damaging bits of it. They also didn't cause the brain to swell enough that blood flow was cut off, killing it slowly. Although doing this can't be taught, it's not the one-in-a-million shot that most people make it out to be. People survive impalings by fence posts, poles, and even drills relatively frequently. The most seemingly life-ending injuries can be healed. So go forth in the world feeling a bit more confident. We can survive a lot more than we think we can.
Skull Image: Human Illnesses