The Survivors Club
The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life
By Ben Sherwood Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2009 Ben Sherwood
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-446-58024-3
Introduction The Survivors Club
The field is known as "human factors in survival." Translation: Why do some people live and others die? How do certain people make it through the most difficult trials while others don't? Why do a few stay calm and collected under extreme pressure when others panic and unravel? How do some bounce back from adversity while others collapse and surrender?
This book answers those questions. It shares the true stories of regular people who have been profoundly tested by life-men and women who have been beaten down, sometimes literally flattened. It explores how ordinary folks somehow manage to pick themselves up, again and again, in the face of overwhelming odds. It investigates whether survivors are different from you and me. And it dissects the mind-set and habits that are shared by the most effective survivors. In short, it unlocks the secrets of who lives and who dies and shows how you can improve your chances in virtually any crisis. At the outset, I'd like to put a few things on the table. Almost everyone I know has faced-or is coping with-some kind of serious challenge or adversity. I wrote this book for them and for myself. While I certainly haven't been tested like the survivors in these pages, I've hit some bumps and experienced my share of loss and grief. My father was in excellent health when he died suddenly at age sixty-four from a massive and inexplicable brain bleed. Defying the probabilities, my mother has beaten back ovarian cancer for nine years, always deflecting credit to the aggressive treatment orchestrated by her superb oncologist. As a journalist, I've had a few close scrapes and witnessed plenty of tragedy. In August 1992, while covering the bloody siege of Sarajevo for ABC News, I was sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a veteran producer and friend named David Kaplan when he was fatally wounded by a sniper. A nine-millimeter bullet ripped through the back door of our Volks-wagen van, pierced David's back, and severed his pulmonary artery. French combat surgeons fought to save him, but his injuries were too grave. It was pure chance that he-not I-ended up in that fatal middle seat, which had seemed the safest spot, away from the windows. I've always been something of a control freak, so each of these events called everything into question. Why do healthy people drop dead without reason? How can cancer strike those who aren't at risk? Why do bullets find one victim and not another? Perhaps in an attempt to regain some command, I began to ask: Are there any hidden ways to improve the odds? If "no one here gets out alive," as Jim Morrison sings, what are the tricks of sticking around as long as possible? My search produced this book, and the answers are both humbling and comforting. When it comes to survival, as you'll see, there's a whole lot that you can't control, and a surprising amount that you can. A few other disclaimers: I'm not a survivalist or an outdoors-man. I don't stockpile canned goods and I'm not preparing for Armageddon, although I did buy emergency kits for my car and home while researching this book. I'm a city guy, a journalist, and an occasional novelist. I've spent most of my life asking questions and I've always been drawn to stories of people under pressure. I remember the summer at age ten when I began to read Alive, the astonishing saga of a plane crash in the Andes Mountains and the passengers who endured seventy-two freezing days on a glacier. It's human nature to speculate: What would I have done? Would I have pushed myself to the same extremes? In March 2000, while working for NBC Nightly News, I marveled at images of Sofia Xerindza, a woman in Mozambique who escaped the deadly floodwaters of the Limpopo River by climbing into a tree, where she gave birth to a baby girl. At ABC's Good Morning America, where I worked as executive producer for two and a half years, I watched a veritable parade of survivors on the screen and always wondered: How did these people endure their trials? Were they always so strong and resilient, or did these abilities suddenly materialize when they most needed them? Television interviews last only a few minutes, so what would these survivors say if the clock wasn't ticking? How did they really get through it? In quieter moments, what wisdom might they share about their experiences? I also wanted to know about all the people who face life's everyday challenges without any attention or fanfare, the unheralded folks fighting illnesses like cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. In the face of life's inevitable crises, how do they get through their days? Where do they find the fortitude, sometimes literally, to climb out of bed? And selfishly, how could I get some of their strength? In this book you'll meet survivors of every imaginable ordeal, young and old, rich and poor, the guy down the street and people in the news. I've gathered tales on every continent; if you can conceive of a crisis, I've probably interviewed someone who has gone through it and come out on the other side. A woman doused with gasoline and set on fire by her husband; a bicyclist on a morning ride crushed by a twenty-one-ton truck; veterans who lived through the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and survived the great battles of World War II; a young ballerina forced to dance for her life by Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz.
The Survivors Club will explain how they did it. You'll learn some of the secrets of survival-like the safest seat on an airplane, the best place to suffer a heart attack, and how the number 3 could keep you alive in a crunch. You'll discover how some people are born with a Resilience Gene that actually protects them from the worst knocks in life. You'll find out how a few easy changes in your food and vitamins can boost your ability to bounce back from hardship. In Manitoba, Canada, you'll meet the human Popsicle: a professor who has dunked himself in ice thirty-nine times in order to understand freezing to death. In Boston, Massachusetts, you'll sit down with the Harvard Medical School expert who specializes in cases of people who are literally scared to death. And in England, a magician-turned-psychology-professor will welcome you to Luck School and show you how to increase your good fortune by 40 percent. Perhaps most surprising of all, in Charlotte, North Carolina, you'll discover the emerging field of posttraumatic growth and the remarkable theory that more people benefit from life's worst events than are shattered by them. The two questions at the heart of this book are these: (1) What does it really take to survive? And (2) What kind of survivor are you? The answers will unfold in two sections. In part 1, I'll investigate the keys to survival in everyday crises ranging from car wrecks to violent crimes. I'll take you inside one of the country's top hospitals to explore who lives and dies in emergency rooms and why, for instance, the ideal age for a brain injury is around sixteen. I'll delve into the psychology of survival and what specific personality traits give you the greatest advantage in beating the odds. I'll explore whether the will to live makes a difference in defeating diseases like breast cancer. And I'll take you on a pilgrimage to a little chapel in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico where they believe that miracle cures really happen. At every step, you'll encounter the wisdom of men and women who have fallen into the abyss and somehow climbed out. These survivors want to share the tactics and strategies they wish they had known before their ordeals. In the race to survive, their insights may give you a critical head start. At the end of each chapter, I'll also try to unlock some of the mysteries of survival. For instance, how can a 145-pound grandmother lift a 3,450-pound Chevy Impala off her son? How did a French woman who smoked cigarettes and ate chocolate every day manage to survive to the age of 122? Why do right-handers live longer than lefties? Why are birthdays and holidays especially dangerous to your survival? And what can we learn from a five-thousand-year-old pine tree named Methuselah, perhaps the oldest living thing on earth? Part 2 of this book shifts the focus to you. Are you as resilient as Trisha Meili, the Central Park Jogger raped, beaten, and left in a pool of blood? Are you as tenacious and tough as John McCain, tortured as a POW for five and a half years in Vietnam? Are you even remotely as competitive as cycling champ and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong? Are you as optimistic as Michael J. Fox, afflicted with Parkinson's disease since 1991? Working with a group of top psychologists and experts, I've developed a powerful new Internet tool to help you figure out your survivor personality. Analyzing the traits of more than one million people, my team has identified the five main types of survivors and the twelve most critical survival tools. With our exclusive test, you'll be able to find out your Survivor IQ. It will only take a few minutes, and when you're done, you'll get a customized report spelling out your unique survivor strengths. At any point, you can skip ahead to part 2 on page 293 and learn how to take the test. The Profiler will also produce your Survivor Match, which compares your personality with the men and women you're reading about in these pages. The readiness is all, Hamlet says, and I sincerely believe the Profiler can give you an edge when adversity strikes. The blast of water up my nose scrambles everything. I'm strapped upside down and can't see a thing at the bottom of the fuzzy chlorinated pool. That's nothing compared with the gurgling in my nostrils and the burning in the back of my throat. My concentration is shot. In my frazzled head, some kind of hazard light switches on. I try to focus on my escape plan and jam my gloved fingers into the snaps on the harness holding me in the Dunker. I shake them furiously and push away from the seat but don't get very far. The straps bite into my shoulders. I'm stuck. I can feel the first tug in my lungs. I'm very conscious of the ensuing alarm and monologue in my brain. Oxygen, please! You're underwater. You don't have all day. What are you going to do now? I pry my fingers into the release latches again and shake them around. Then I yank hard on the harnesses and kick against the floor. I'm still trapped. I look down at my chest to see if I can figure out the problem. No chance. There are too many bands and clasps on my gear. There are also too many bubbles. Now, as my lungs start to clench, the warning sirens start clanging in my head. My brain is no longer asking politely. It's shouting: Oxygen, now! In the classroom a few hours earlier, the instructors insisted that virtually anyone can be taught to get out of the Dunker. Their mantras were succinct. First, maintain your reference point. In the most chaotic situations, that means identifying and holding on to something that will help you stay oriented no matter how many times you flip over or get banged in the head. If you keep your point of reference, you will never get lost or confused and will always find a way out. I chose the handle on a door as my reference point. They didn't warn me the shot of water up my nose would distract me and make me let go. Still: That's the whole point. They're trying to disorient you. They want you to fail before you succeed. Their second mantra is to wait for all sudden and violent motion to stop. In the Dunker, that means surrendering to the whirling sensation of what it must feel like in a blender. Eventually, the chaos subsides, the tumult ceases, and it's a lot easier to handle the situation. Underwater, it can feel like an eternity, but it's typically only ten or fifteen seconds. That means you have plenty of air and time to unbuckle and get out. It all sounded great in theory. Another pang in my lungs. I'm really starting to worry. I try one more time with the buckles, poking, jiggling, and finally thrashing with my fingers. No luck. Now, slamming hard into the floor with my legs, I throw myself against the harness with all my weight. This is my version of brute force. It's my last gasp. If this doesn't work, I'll resort to the prayer sign. I strain and flail and then-incredibly-I'm free, floating in the cockpit. I'm so surprised and elated that I actually marvel for a moment at my weightlessness. I drift around, unfettered, but quickly realize that I'm lost and don't know the way to the designated exit hatch. Even more confusing, I'm not sure which way is up. I swish in every direction trying to identify the right door. Then I find it, fumble with the latch, and force my way out. I follow the bubbles up toward the light. With my lungs straining, I break the surface and take a huge gulp of air.
The sun is setting over the palm trees at Miramar. F-18s thunder into the orange dusk. After thirteen hours of survival training, class is over, and our soaking flight suits are lined up on racks. Our boots, leaking great puddles, are set out to dry. As I get ready to go, the divers who watched from the bottom of the pool tell me that I looked a little "frenzied" trying to get out of the Dunker. Easy for them to say. Turns out my harness had actually released the first time I unbuckled it, but my survival vest had gotten snagged on the pilot's seat. In my turmoil, I hadn't been able to diagnose the problem. The frogmen say I had plenty of air and time and should have stayed calmer under pressure. Panic is the enemy. All those mental hazard lights, alarms, and sirens short-circuit our problem solving. We forget our training. We don't maintain our points of reference. We don't wait for the violent action to stop. We lose our minds and our way.
No matter the adversity, the navy says, survival is a mentality, a way of thinking. Survival is also a lens, a way of perceiving the world around you. The best survivors in the military share a constant outlook and approach, which they believe can also be applied to the struggles of everyday life. They understand that crisis is inevitable and they anticipate adversity. When they face a challenge, they observe and analyze the situation, devise a plan, and move decisively. If things go wrong, they adapt and improvise. If they get overwhelmed, they recover quickly. They also know how to wait for the worst to end. Understanding that even misfortune gets tired and needs a break, they're able to hold back, identify the right moment, and then do what they need to do. Psychologists have a clunky term for this: active passiveness. It means recognizing when to stop and when to go. In a critical sense, doing nothing can mean doing something. Inaction can be action, and embracing this paradox can save your life.
Lieutenant Commander Bates meets me at the front doors of her training center and hands over my exit papers or "qual sheets." She tells me I've earned a Q, the coveted grade for "qualified." Two other members of my class also receive their Qs. "Congratulations," she says with a farewell handshake. "You survived."
Excerpted from The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood Copyright © 2009 by Ben Sherwood. Excerpted by permission.
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