Before moving into the subject of this week’s post, I want to thank readers for their patience. While we survived Irene unscathed, my scattershot relationship with electricity the past week delayed the transmission of my thoughts to the electronic page. (From this, you can correctly infer that I typically write all my posts on Sundays, which works just fine so long as you have power in your house on Sunday. Which I didn’t this past week.) It appeared that I would get this post up only a day or two late when power kicked in very late last Sunday night, but I was foiled by a subsequent outage.
I pray that you’ll forgive the delay and move forward into the world of disaster preparedness with me now.
As Irene moved over and then past Long Island last weekend, the following prosthetic-related thought ran through my head: what happens if we lose electricity for several days? And the reason this is a prosthetic-related thought is that I, like so many of the appliances we now “depend” on, am battery operated.
Many of my neighbors lost power for close to a week. And that started me thinking. These events have reminded me of an oft-recurring discussion I have with myself: how would I deal with different kinds of disasters given my prosthetic-wearing existence? With that as a backdrop, I present to you my Amputee Disaster Survival Guide. Enjoy.
I missed a huge opportunity to assess my “current state” preparedness to deal with earthquakes when I missed the 5.9-magnitude shaker that hit the Northeast two weeks ago. (I was in Dallas, enjoying three days of 100+ degree temperatures, which should qualify as a disaster in its own right.) However, I am happy to report, I did sit through an earthquake in Southern California last year. Here are my observations.
Rule number one: you have to be able to identify the pending disaster if you want to save yourself. Sadly, I do not live by that rule.
I was lying on the bed in my hotel room. It had been a long day at work and I was in East Coast Jet Lag Mode. At 9:30 PT, it was too early to go to sleep but my brain told me that it was fast approaching 1 AM. Confident in the fact that I wasn’t moving again that night, I had taken off my prosthesis and was lying on my bed in my Hanes.
As I flipped through channels at the Hilton Garden Inn, my next-door neighbor entered her room and slammed the door with a vigor usually reserved for punctuating the end of a marriage. My room shook from the force, and I felt my bed rocking back and forth. “Wow, how does a person close a door so hard in one room that it moves the bed in another?” was the brilliant thought that flashed through my brain. So much for rule number one.
It took me about 10 seconds, but it gradually dawned on my that I was living through – hopefully – an earthquake. As depressing as it is to consider that it took me that long to figure out what was happening, it’s equally dispiriting to note that upon realizing the cause of this disturbance, it took me less than one second to figure out that I was screwed. (To analogize, if I lived in the savannah, I’d be unable to ascertain the actual threat a hungry lion posed until it was standing three feet away from me, fangs bared and claws reaching to rend my throat. On the bright side, at that point I would be able to accurately determine my chances of survival (.00000032%) instantaneously.)
If this were in fact the Big One, I concluded quickly and without remorse that I was dead. My prosthesis was lying against the dresser 10 feet away. My pants were hanging in the closet. My only option to get out of the building quickly was to hop post-haste out of the room and into the parking lot. And the thought of winding up under the well-lit flourescence of the blacktop outside, wearing only a sock, briefs, and a yellowing undershirt quickly led me to the conclusion that it was better to die in the rubble of my hotel.
Donning the prosthesis quickly wasn’t an option. (It may be an oxymoron.) In the best-case scenario, I would leap up from my bed (3-5 seconds), get my liner, which was in the bathroom (7-12 seconds), roll it on my limb (5 seconds), grab my prosthesis and step into it (10-20 seconds), and finally, screw the valve into the housing to create the necessary suction to actually walk without the prosthesis falling off my body (4-7 seconds). That’s somewhere between 29 and 49 seconds if everything went perfectly. Oh – and I’d still have no pants.
Poised between resignation and the abyss, I employed the only strategy I could think of: do nothing. Fortunately, the room stopped shaking. I flipped to the news and watched reports ranging from San Diego to LA documenting the quake. I now proudly count myself an Earthquake Survivor.
Chances of Dave Surviving a Major Earthquake (wearing prosthesis): 89%
Chances of Dave Surviving a Major Earthquake (in underwear on bed) 5.7%
2. plane crash
Whenever I board a plane, I invariably think at some point between takeoff and landing, “How would I get off if this thing crashed?” I am, of course, assuming that I survive the initial impact, which is a dubious proposition. But, let’s take the proverbial “Sully Scenario”, where the plane is safely brought to a rest in a body of water. (I’m not going to waste my time with crash landings on solid ground. My working assumption there is that a giant tin can falling from the sky with jet fuel in the wings will result in a fiery death and low/no survival rate.) How would I fare? And please, let’s leave aside the question of what kind of person actually boards a plane and starts running through these scenarios in his head.
My first supposition is that people would react frantically as water pours into the cabin. Getting out the door becomes everyone’s only focus. And between these people and the comparative safety of the plane’s wing or the body of water in which our plane now rests stands a guy (a) with a battery-powered knee that may not be functioning correctly if it has been partially submerged in water, and (b) who, even on his best day, isn’t the swiftest and smoothest walker down the narrow aisle of an airplane, especially when said airplane is filling up with liquid and moving in ways that resemble the final scenes of Titanic. I imagine myself as Kevin Bacon at the end of Animal House, trying to repel the oncoming mob. If this was to happen, I drown in 4 inches of water as people walk over my back to prolong their lives at least another 3 minutes.
Alternatively, perhaps our flight attendants shout out commands in clear, calm voices. And, sheep that we are, everyone starts walking calmly through the water-filled cabin and sloshing to the exit. I get to the door – hopefully over the wing – and step onto the wet metal.
Before continuing this imaginary walk to safety, let me admit that I have never walked on the wing of an airplane before. But I have imagined what the wing of an airplane would feel like when under 3-6 inches of water, and I theorize that the submerged metal surface isn’t – how shall I put it – grippy.
And so, stepping from the giant casket that is quickly filling with water, I emerge into the brightness of day (nighttime crash too scary to contemplate, surrounded by water in total darkness), take one step onto the wing, and promptly slide off it into the drink. Even if I don’t, the panicked housewife from Indiana who’s never going to make it back home to kiss her beloved mother, Winnie, goodbye again if the idiot in front of her doesn’t move his ass out of the cabin likely knocks me over in her rush to safety, putting me in exactly the same position.
Hopefully my life vest is inflated at this point, but who the hell really knows? I’m not supposed to inflate it while I’m in the plane because then I can’t fit out the door. If I’ve followed that instruction, I’m flying into a body of water while simultaneously trying to pull the cord that inflates the life vest. In other words, I’m wearing a useless piece of yellow rubber around my neck. And since I’m using a prosthesis, which – let’s admit it – could more accurately now be labeled an anchor, I’m quickly racing towards the bottom of whatever body of water we happen to be now sitting in.
At this point we enter an entirely different disaster scenario that, I am embarrassed to admit, I have actually thought through. As I struggle to stay afloat, I quickly realize that my prosthesis will be the thing that drags me to a watery grave. My only chance for survival is to get it off. But it’s trapped by my pants!
So, panicked and sinking, I have to (a) undo the button of my blue jeans/slacks, (b) unzip the zipper, (c) pull my pants down, (d) bleed air into the valve – will that even work if I’m under water? – or, if it doesn’t work, (e) unscrew it from the housing, and then (f) slide out of my pants and prosthesis in one smooth motion. Oh God – what about my shoes? (g) My damn shoes also have to come off before the other stuff, or else I get the pants and prosthesis stuck on the shoes and descend into the Marianas Trench but for 3 inches of fabric that I couldn’t clear from the rubber soles of my Nikes.
Of course, I could avoid all of this by taking a completely different approach. And pathetically, I have also fully thought through this possible branch of my possible disaster-filled future. I could acknowledge the reality that even if I get out of the plane in the manner described above, my chances of survival upon leaving the cabin are uncomfortably low. Therefore, as the cabin is filling with water, I could pop off my shoes, pull down my pants, and remove my prosthesis, leaving me to hop through the cabin in my underwear and out to safety. But this scenario is problematic for multiple reasons.
First – and never underestimate the power of this – who the hell wants to hop through the cabin of an airplane in their underwear while other, better-dressed individuals, look disapprovingly at you? If I had to go out the front of the plane, would they even let me into the First-Class cabin looking like this? I can imagine a flight attendant, sad smirk on his face, informing me, “I’m sorry, Sir, but this is a ‘pants-only’ section. You’ll have to please proceed out over the wing exits, with the people wearing spandex, tank tops, and [coughs politely], no pants.” Given my previously-stated desire to die on my hotel bed rather than risk the approbation of others upon reaching the parking lot in underwear and a dress sock, would my reaction on a plane be so different?
Second, even if I could muster up the courage to go this embarrassing route, my chances of successfully hopping across a wing that’s underwater aren’t any higher than walking across it on a prosthesis. In fact, they may be lower. Because I’m hopping across a piece of wet metal in a live body of water, isn’t it likely that I lose my balance and fall? Maybe I hit my head on the wing and lose consciousness. Now I’m knocked out, in my underwear, sliding to my death while passengers shake their heads sadly at the barely-dressed corpse. (Unless I inflated my vest before the fateful hop, in which case I bob lifelessly in the water but don’t drown.)
Finally, regardless of whether my pants/prosthesis are on or off, what happens if I exit in the back or front of the plane (i.e., no wing to stand/hop on)? Presumably, I figure out how to get my life vest inflated before I’m in the water, so let’s take the inflated/uninflated discussion off the table. At that point, the central questions are (a) how long does it take for someone to get to us, and (b) how cold is the water? For example, if we’re in the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, we have less time than if we’re in the Mediterranean Sea because of the risk of hypothermia. But in either instance, unless we’re close to shore, the chances of being found in time are slim and none. And that’s before we start talking about the risk of sharks and other delightful sea creatures finding us as we await our rescue.
Chances of Dave getting out of the cabin: 49.2%
Chances of Dave surviving if he gets out of cabin onto the wing: 53.6%
Chances of Dave surviving if he gets out of cabin, onto the wing, and falls into water while wearing prosthesis, life vest uninflated: 13%
Chances of Dave surviving if he first takes off pants/prosthesis, gets out of cabin, onto the wing, falls while hopping (vest uninflated), loses consciousness: 0%
Chances of Dave surviving if he first takes off pants/prosthesis, gets out of cabin, onto the wing, falls while hopping (vest inflated), loses consciousness: 1.9%-41.8% (depending on roughness/temperature of water)
Chances of Dave surviving if he skips the wing exit, jumps directly into water with vest inflated: 2.4%-41.8%.
Please refer to plane crash, specifically, paragraphs 2, 6, 7, and 10.
Chances of Dave getting off the boat: 51.3%
Chances of Dave surviving if he gets off the boat on some kind of life raft: 55.6%
Chances of Dave surviving if he gets off the boat and directly into the water with life vest: 2.4%-41.8%
Let me first disclose that one of the most traumatic events of my young life was going to our local fire department in northwest Massachusetts for a “fire awareness/prevention” day. While I’m sure I saw firetrucks up close, got coloring books etc., the only thing I remember – and I remember it clearly – was the movie they showed us. My 5-year-old brain has stored with near-perfect accuracy the young teenager failing to appreciate the smoke quickly spreading through the house – Jesus, it slides underneath the door like a nightmare monster! – and passing out on the floor.
The fact that he was ultimately rescued by a brave, handsome fireman with a superhero-like physique who looked nothing like the volunteer firemen in the room around me was immaterial. The main lesson I learned from this cinematic masterpiece was that if there were ever a fire in my house I would most certainly die, the existence of “tot finder” stickers in my bedroom windows notwithstanding.
Over the years, that terror has subsided, buttressed by multiple in-house fire alarms and my transition to an artificial Christmas tree. But “what if”?
First of all, there’s the “when does the fire occur?” factor, which is largely the same as in the earthquake analysis. If I’m lying in bed without my prosthesis when the alarms start going off, my chances of survival drop by some unknown factor. Without my leg I can’t carry any of my kids heroically through burning flames, though I’d like to think I’d try. So I probably hop into their rooms, realize I can’t do anything, and trap myself in the process.
Second, there’s the question of where’s the fire in the house? If I’m upstairs and the fire has sealed me off from the ground floor, than with leg or without, my odds probably don’t change all that much. I and my family are exiting through windows and making some kind of big jump to the ground below. At this point, the only question for me is how much damage do I inflict on my sound leg by jumping off a roof/out of a window? An interesting and related query – would I damage my sound leg less if I jumped with or without my prosthesis? (I hypothesize less damage with a prosthesis, since I can at least try to dissipate the impact across two limbs, though I do have visions of jackknifing over the back of my prosthesis – anyone who’s ever fallen backwards with a prosthesis knows what I’m talking about – in which case, I may end up snapping my spine in half.)
Third, there’s the issue of having to dart through flaming sections of the house to the safety of my yard. Here’s where I hypothesize that a prosthesis could actually help. Without flesh and blood to burn on my left leg, I hypothesize that I could lead with that limb and get through the flames safely. However, upon closer examination, I believe this is a faulty analysis.
If the flames are so bad that I’m contemplating leading with my left leg, the chances of my scorching the right and suffering horrible injuries are reasonably high. Also, it would be interesting to know at what temperature the batteries in my prosthetic knee actually ignite. And what kind of damage would the battery explosion inflict? Would it send shrapnel into my sound leg? This is what I call the “disaster within a disaster” scenario, a device any of you who once read Shakespeare or who saw Inception should be familiar with. I won’t even try to answer this question, as it makes my brain hurt, but I just want everyone to know that I’ve played this out to its logical extension.
Chances of Dave surviving a fire with prosthesis off, access to stairs preserved: 47%
Chances of Dave surviving a fire with prosthesis off, access to stairs blocked: 24.5%
Chances of Dave surviving a fire with prosthesis on, access to stairs preserved: 68.9%
Chances of Dave surviving a fire with prosthesis on, access to stairs blocked: 52.7%
Chances of Dave snapping spine in half jumping from second story window, prosthesis off: 14%
Chances of Dave snapping spine in half jumping from second story window, prosthesis on: 21.1%
There you have it – the earth opening up beneath you, a plane crash, a boat sinking, and a blazing house. I hope this “disaster edition” of less is more has proven instructive and jump started a thoughtful, rational dialogue in your own head about your ability to survive these (and other) scenarios.