Accidents happen. But when they involve men, things tend to turn deadly. Don’t go out in a blaze of stupid
My mate Mills is standing on a tree limb about 1.8m off the ground while revving a chain saw. It looks like he’s auditioning for Jackass: Home Edition. In fact, he’s auditioning for the top spot on the US National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s death list, which ranks “unintentional injury” as the number one killer of men between the ages of 18 and 44. Mills is not full-time stupid. We met as beginner paramedics, and now he’s a seasoned veteran who has spent years rescuing – or trying to rescue – men thick-headed enough to do things like the one he’s about to do. Things go fine at first, and the limb begins to fall. But then it twists, and as the leafy end crashes to the ground, the bottom end flips around, pinning both of Mills’ legs. Trapped two metres off the ground with a running saw, Mills is screaming in pain, certain the bones in his legs are crushed. He screams so loudly and repeatedly that a building crew across the road hears him above the noise of their saws. They call for an ambulance and then try everything they can to move the tree limb. By the time the ambulance arrives, Mills is imagining life without his legs. Apart from chainsawing trees while standing in them, Mills provides us with another example of perhaps the most dangerous behaviour men engage in: going it alone. So after a combined 45 years of rescuing guys in every pinch imaginable, Mills and I both agree: if you’re a man, you are prone to do something dumb and dangerous.
One day while on duty as a volunteer firefighter, my brother John responded to a call about a fire involving a guy who’d left his stove on. By the time he’d realised that his late night popcorn was no longer edible, the kitchen was engulfed in flames. Although the guy was burned, he was conscious, breathing and talking when John arrived. Within 24 hours, the man was dead: the superheated air that he’d inhaled had fatally damaged his lungs. The man who decided to make a quick late night snack wasn’t stupid, but you would be if you had passed out afterwards. A fire can spread in a matter of minutes and if something catches alight, your first defence is to react –quickly. Grab the fire extinguisher (you have a fire extinguisher, right?) and then call your local fire department: but do not take a nap with the stove on.
He was a small-town varsity kid out for a night of partying. After a couple of drinks, and a minor misunderstanding with his girlfriend he decided that he was over the jol and instead of sharing a taxi back to res with his mates, he got behind the wheel of his car. Across all deadly categories established, such as accidental poisonings, drownings, chokings, falls – you’ll find that alcohol seeps into and swells up nearly every set of numbers. For all the focus on designated drivers, there should probably also be a designated thinker – not only to make sure your soused self arrives home safely but to see you to sleep without incident, too.
At Overlake Medical Center in rainy and hilly Washington, ER physician Dr Robert Van Hare, sometimes cares for men who wind up beneath their lawnmowers after they slip and fall while trying to cut grass on wet hillsides. Van Hare’s recommendation? “Mow in rugby boots...you can aerate the lawn at the same time.” I don’t use this as an excuse to go and buy one of those industrial riding lawnmowers – it can flip on a steep embankment and crush you. And while we’re on the topic of embarrassing mowing mishaps, make sure you always keep your gaze focused on the grass ahead of you instead of the babe sunbathing next door. “We have had a case where the person ran over a clothes hanger in the grass and was impaled by pieces of the broken hanger,” says Van Hare.
In addition to seeing each other on emergency calls, Mills and I are also hooked on scavenging. One day Mills got a hot tip on a used cattle gate I’d been looking for. On his way over to pick it up, he decided to make a phone call. He was on a rural road with no vehicles in sight, and he only looked down to dial. When he put the phone to his ear and looked up, he was in the wrong lane and shooting past a bakkie that had taken to the ditch to avoid hitting him head-on.
The other driver was okay, but Mills was deeply shaken. Not only could he have hurt or killed someone, but he would have done it by engaging in the same behaviour that is putting more and more people in the back of his ambulance.
The tip here? There isn’t one, except that sometimes it takes a moment of being scared shitless to do what 500 radio ads won’t. Mills has sworn off dialling and driving for good. The last time he called me from a vehicle was when he’d just installed Bluetooth. “You know,” he said, in full-on evangelist mode, “at 88km an hour, if you take your eyes off the road for just five seconds, you cover the length of about a rugby field.
Not long ago, Dr Michael Stier, suffered a minor cut while cleaning fish. I’ve filleted myself the same way and usually treat the cut by sucking on it for a few seconds, spitting, maybe cussing, and calling it good. Not Stier – he immediately washed his wound, applied antiseptic and covered it with a sterile bandage. “I autopsied a man who died of a paper cut,” says Stier, a forensic pathologist at the University of Wisconsin. “He worked in a recycling facility. This very small cut became infected, and he didn’t take it seriously. He developed necrotising fasciitis [flesh-eating bacteria], and even an amputation couldn’t save him.” Stier’s advice: “Don’t be macho. Any broken skin is a conduit to an infection, and even a simple slice can turn deadly.”
I make most of my ambulance calls in rural areas, and among the worst cases are farmers killed or mangled in their machinery. You may be a city slicker or suburbanite who has never spent a second in the seat of a tractor, but you can still learn an important lifesaving lesson from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which points out that most agricultural accidents occur “when the equipment operator is fatigued or there is pressure to quickly finish one task and move on to another where deadlines, darkness or weather are involved.” Translation: whether it’s a hammer or a hacksaw, a power drill or a power washer you’re using, if you find yourself trying to beat the clock, stop and call it a day before you need to call 10 111. Who knows? You may saw straighter lines and bend fewer nails in the morning, too.
Are you one of the millions of men who consume while commuting? You could be taken out by your takeout. Van Hare once had to rescue a driver who crashed while eating takeaways. “Even though there were no life-threatening injuries, the patient had aspirated on a piece of food,” he says. And lest I come off as a finger-shaking scold, I admit that I once nearly hit a truck while trying to one-hand a very large coffee as I merged from a highway on-ramp. Squeezing the cup too hard, I collapsed it and dumped the hot liquid all over my hands and thigh. I managed to keep the car on the road, but a few centimetres either way and I’d have been a statistic or sterilised.
I’m a big believer in bike helmets. But one day as I prepared for a training ride in 38°C heat, I decided “just this once” to skip the lid and feel the breeze. One block down the street, I started flashing back to all the patients I had cared for whose brains would have been preserved had their skulls been protected, including the mom who tipped over on her bike while reaching for letters in a post box. A block and a half later, I turned around to pick up my helmet.
I was a kilometre back into my training ride when the car hit me. It crossed the centre line, and I leaped at the last second, clearing the bonnet but bouncing off the windscreen before arcing over the roof. Then I crashed head first onto the tar. I was scraped and bruised and had tweaked my knee, but beyond that I was fine. The front of my helmet was crushed. After responding to all those ambulance calls, I knew exactly how the front of my skull could have looked.
The main lesson here is obvious, but the secondary one is equally important: don’t just wear your helmet; wear it properly. The straps should be tight and – this is what saved me – the front should ride just one or two finger widths over your eyebrows. Finally, if your helmet saves you once, don’t assume it can save you twice: even if it appears to be undamaged, it may not be able to absorb another blow.
Bonus admonition: while voluntary helmet use among most bicyclists and motorcyclists is way up since I first started making ambulance runs, I’m still flabbergasted by how many helmetless bike and scooter riders I see. Whether you wipe out on your badass Harley or tip over on your hipster scooter, your bean bounces the same.
Whenever I see a box of white Easter eggs, I think of my first aid instructor telling us about the first patient he ever “lost”: a kid who choked on that Easter favourite . All the standard Heimlich-style attempts to dislodge the egg failed, so the instructor tried to remove it with forceps. The egg just kept crumbling. By the time the airway cleared, the kid was dead. If you start choking, ignore your pride and catch someone’s attention. Some victims try not to create a scene, quietly leave the table and die alone. Dining solo? Do five abdominal thrusts: place a fist above your belly button, then grab it with the other hand and bend over the back of a chair to shove your fist simultaneously inward and upward.
Dr Keith Wesley, a former paramedic, has seen men injure and kill themselves in every bloody, twisted way imaginable, but ask him how the average Joe is likely to go and he says, “Of course, there is always the guy who simply refuses to acknowledge the warning that the top step on a step ladder is not a step.” Take that DANGER decal at its word. Whether you’re putting the star atop the Christmas tree or cleaning your gutters.
Poisonings aren’t just reserved for episodes of CSI. While they include overdoses of illegal drugs, Stier says the last three OD-related autopsies he did involved legitimate prescriptions. The scenario he sees? A guy with back pain about to go out clubbing decides to take two pills in-stead of one; he has a few beers, goes home, and then takes a few more pills to control the pain so he can sleep. “People don’t realise the power of a prescribed drug to be deadly,” he says. Those warning stickers aren't “safety hints”. Before taking a heftier dose, ask your doc.