Survival of the Fittest

Witnessing my father’s survival of a near-fatal accident convinced me that we are all making life-or-death decisions every single day.

On the evening of April 30th, 2006, my father (then 75 years old) was on his way home from a family dinner when he was struck and gravely injured by a drunk driver.

That driver was so drunk, in fact, that he stumbled away from the accident without checking to see if my dad was alive. Which he was, miraculously, despite shattered limbs, deep lacerations, blood loss, a concussion and a collapsed lung that left him struggling to breathe.

It was the kind of accident that could easily have killed any one of us.

How fortunate that some other cars happened to be traveling that normally quiet stretch of highway and immediately called 911.

How lucky that an off-duty firefighter and EMT just happened to live nearby and was on the scene within minutes.

How wonderful that the Jaws of Life and helicopter transport both arrived quickly, and that the trauma and surgery teams at the hospital had all the skills and technologies they needed to piece Dad’s body back together again.

Since that night, our family has often counted the many blessings and miracles that allowed my father survive.

But perhaps the biggest miracle and blessing of all was that Dad’s body could be pieced back together. And this was not a matter of luck or happenstance. It was the result of a lifetime of healthy choices — choices my father had made every day, year after year, over the course of his adult life.

When the doctors came out of the emergency operating room to give us an update on Dad’s status, they all remarked — admiringly and repeatedly — on the unusually healthy state of his body.

Dad had the skeleton, they said, of a much younger man, and it was clear from his fitness and muscle tissue that he had been active his whole life. Despite the trauma he’d been through, his lung strength was impressive, his organs in astonishingly good shape.

The orthopedic surgeon extolled the density of Dad’s bones and noted how well they’d taken the pins and rods that might otherwise have shattered them further. The doc who sewed up Dad’s head even commented on the excellent quality of his skin.

All of them were frankly incredulous about the fact that this elderly gentleman wasn’t on a single prescription or over-the-counter medication, a fact that greatly facilitated and simplified his post-surgical treatment.

Our father’s prognosis, they said — for surviving this and ensuing surgeries, for enduring his long recovery, and for eventually reclaiming his lost mobility — was far more promising than it would normally have been for a person his age. And this was in large part because he was in such excellent and vibrant health before the accident occurred.

For as long as any of us can remember, Dad has eaten exceptionally well, taken his vitamins, and exercised on a daily basis. He gave up a two-pack a day smoking habit in the 1960s, and aside from an occasional glass of beer or wine, he has never been much for drinking, either.

Growing up, I remember him lifting weights and doing his calisthenics in the living room. Aside from walking, for a long time his favorite fitness activity involved pounding a giant tractor tire with sledgehammer in the backyard. Just prior to the accident, he’d worked his way up to several hundred swings. 



In the weeks following his brush with death, Dad made every effort to keep his healthy regimens going. He eschewed hospital food in favor the more nutritious alternatives we brought in. And even while he was constrained to a hospital bed, it wasn’t unusual for us to look over and find Dad doing his shoulder lifts, his ankle circles, his isometric glute squeezes and whatever other exercises he could muster.

We knew he was counting the days until he could once again stand, and then walk, on his own two feet.

My dad’s strong connection to his body and his will to repair it, though, were only part of the healing equation that brought him back from the brink of death. Other critical factors were his love of life itself, his deep well of intellectual and emotional resources, and perhaps most of all, his wonderfully resilient spirit.

There’s a valuable lesson in this for all of us: The most important life-or-death decisions we’ll ever make — the ones most likely to make or break our health, our resilience, and the quality of our lives — are probably the small choices we make on a daily basis.

My father, now 80, ultimately recovered from his injuries much more quickly and more completely than any of his doctors predicted. He walks with a limp, but he walks every day. He works with a trainer three times a week on his strength, balance and flexibility. He’s still eating well, still taking his vitamins, still taking zero medications of any kind.

Five years after we could so easily have lost him, he continues to be a hero of mine, and an inspiration for maintaining my own health and vitality as I age.

While we may not welcome all the changes that age brings, most of us do value the wisdom that comes from experience. And if there’s one thing this particular experience taught me, it’s that a long-term commitment to our health and wellbeing is one of the most important priorities any of us can maintain.

If you’ve already made that commitment, your future self — and your loved ones — will thank you. And if you haven’t made it yet, know that it’s never too late to start, or to start again.

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Pilar Gerasimo is editor in chief of Experience Life magazine (www.experiencelife.com) and the founder of RevolutionaryAct.com. She also blogs regularly for the Huffington Post.