Will You Live or Die?

In the ER trauma world there is actually a formula that’s used to calculate a patient’s chances of survival. It’s critical to distinguish the difference between injuries involving knives, bullets and brick walls.


Winning mindset, the will to live, street survival; there are a myriad of terms we as LE trainers use to describe surviving incidents in which officers came close to dying. When someone inexplicably survives an incident which should have resulted in death, we often have few tangible clues to explain the outcome. Therefore, we try to explain it by crediting the survival to something ambiguous like - the will to live. For the purpose of this article, I will not confine myself strictly to LEOs, but rather include the population in general.

Since 1968, I’ve been in the business of keeping the peace. I’ve been in the military, police department and a federal agency. I’ve seen dozens of cases where individuals have been involved in situations which should have resulted in their death. Instead, these rare “survivors,” did not succumb to their injuries. Why? How do you explain two people suffering the same incident, yet one dies and one lives? Let me attempt to shed some light on the secrets to survival.

Besides my own research and observations in over forty years of LE experience, I recently read a remarkable book: The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood. The author cites personal accounts of survivors from all walks of life who have experienced critical incidents which should have killed them. The tales are astonishing and miraculous. But through anecdotal information and consultations with doctors and scientists, Sherwood has concisely put together a veritable survivor handbook for everyone.

To begin, Sherwood lays out the Three Rules for Survival:

1.       Everyone is a survivor. This does not mean all of us are super heroes, fighting bad guys and always winning. Rather, it means survivors are regular people who suffer the same failures, disappointments and other challenges as the rest of us. They sometimes win, but also lose. Survivors have their good and bad days, and suffer bouts of depression and gloom. But survivors have something in common. All of them share the same mindset. They make the most out of life and figure out what’s best for themselves, their family and friends. 

 2.       It’s not all relative. Whether you’re a victim of a shooting, a near-drowning or you’re battling a disease, the situation doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the crisis you face is a life and death struggle—and it’s your struggle. Comparing your battle with someone else’s is unimportant. Relativity in this instance is meaningless. So the second rule is simply that your battle is just as important as anyone else’s. 

 3.       You’re stronger than you know. As we live our lives each day we are rarely tested in terms of life or death. It’s only when we are thrust into a situation which could result in losing our life that we discover how strong we truly are. This toughness lies dormant in each of us until we face that challenge that causes this inner strength to explode from our inner being. Survivors later often marvel at what they’ve done, how strong they were and how unlike themselves they became. Survivors often remark, “I didn’t know I had it in me.” 

What it takes to survive.

In the ER trauma world there is actually a formula that’s used to calculate a patient’s chances of survival. Take my word for it, it’s too complex to understand. But in simple terms, survival is a function of a number of factors: age, vital signs, blood pressure and respiratory rate, and, of course, the injuries you’ve suffered. It’s critical to distinguish the difference between injuries involving knives, bullets and brick walls.

If you arrive at the ER with a stab wound to the heart and no vital signs, you have a 37 to 40 percent chance of surviving. Contrast that with a bullet to the heart and no vitals, and your chances drop to just 4 percent. The reason: size of the wound and collateral damage from the bullet, versus one clean wound from the knife. Crashing into a brick wall or any blunt trauma injury is the least desirable type of injury. The blunt trauma caused by car crashes, falls, etc., causes multiple injuries to bones, organs and most importantly, your brain.

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