Secrets of the Super Resilient

Illness. Divorce. Job loss. The death of a loved one. You don’t get this far in life without experiencing some adversity. But while you can’t avoid painful events, you can learn to control your response to them. “The brain is an organ of adaptation,” writes Laurence Gonzales, author of the new book Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. Here, he reveals how recovery can be a transforming experience that not only moves us forward but also enriches our lives in ways we never could have imagined

by Laurence Gonzales
resilience cracked egg photo
Photograph: Craig Cutler

Chance always plays a role in survival, and it entered Glenn’s story here. Horrified, terrified, convinced she would die, she looked up and saw Mike, who had scrambled onto the boat. Behind him stood Samberson, the vascular surgeon, and Shaw, the ICU nurse. They had all brought their medical equipment on the trip in case of just such an emergency. Without this team so close at hand, Glenn would have bled to death in perhaps another minute.

Mike reached into his wife’s shoulder and groped for the torn end of her brachial artery, which was ejecting the fountain of blood she had seen in the water. Samberson ran for his equipment and moments later handed Mike a hemostat to compress the vessel. Blood was still pouring out. Mike worked his way deeper into the wound to clamp the artery higher up.

“That’s when the pain hit,” Glenn says. “It was surgery without anesthesia. I started screaming so loud that I couldn’t hear. I stopped to apologize and started right in screaming again.” Mike found the artery and pinched it off, while Samberson broke out his instruments and clamped off other blood vessels with hemostats. Meanwhile, Shaw started an IV.

During the seven-and-a-half-hour trip back to Miami, Glenn knew she needed to stay awake so that she wouldn’t sink into shock and a coma. The pain could help her accomplish that. As so many survivors do, she developed a mantra: Pain is my friend.

There is a special circuit in the brain that we share with all other mammals. It’s called the rage circuit. If you’re attacked, this neural pathway is activated. It causes you to scream and struggle and fight. But that response takes a lot of energy, and a mantra can help calm the rage and conserve energy that your body needs for survival. Glenn’s mantra carried her through the excruciating journey to the hospital, by dinghy, police boat, helicopter, ambulance and, at last, Coast Guard jet.

A surgeon in Miami rebuilt Glenn’s arm using her latissimus dorsi muscle to fashion new triceps (her arm retains some range of motion, but her hand is not functional). Another doctor grafted skin from Glenn’s legs to reconstruct her back and upper arm. Over the next 12 days, doctors operated on Glenn six times. She survived the attack that should have killed her. In the TV version, her story would end here.

But the more profound drama—the ordeal of trying to re-enter the world—was just beginning. And from Glenn’s recovery we can learn some lessons about resilience. We all need to learn how to move on—maybe not from a shark attack but from the trauma of being laid off, falling ill, losing a loved one or going through an ugly divorce. The brain is an organ of adaptation. We just have to know how to use it.

Glenn says that while in the hospital, she needed to “focus on something every minute,” because as soon as she relaxed, “it was like the wall in the room would turn into the sea, and I relived the shark attack over and over and over.” She would wake up screaming, with her mother standing over her saying, “It’s just a nightmare. It’s just a nightmare.”

The day before Thanksgiving, she and Mike returned to their home in Destin, Florida. To take her mind off her traumatic experience, she returned to work only 18 days after the attack, still wearing bandages and a plastic splint running from her upper back to her wrist. “I could do only half days,” she says. Even so, her arm would swell, and she’d have to lie down every half hour and elevate it.

“My body was so traumatized,” she says. “I had nerve-graft incisions from knee to foot, a large skin-graft harvest area from my hip almost to my knee, 64 square inches of skin removed from my back, all of the ugly trauma to my armpit and upper arm, compartment-release incisions [to reduce swelling] from elbow to fingers.”

Glenn had become an alien in her own home. “I had the feeling that pieces of me were scattered in the ocean,” she tells me. “And they were: Physical pieces of me were missing. But it was more than that. I felt like I had completely lost who I was.”

Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue

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