Thompson swam to shore and collapsed. When he caught sight of his left leg, all he saw was a broken tibia bone—there was no flesh left, no arteries, just bone. He remembers staring at the overcast sky and thinking: "I beat this shark, and I'm going to live to tell the world about it."
Thompson didn't have a chance to be angry at first. He didn't know how rare shark attacks actually are—there are between 65 and 75 worldwide per year. But a thought emerged in the days after the attack, one that could trigger vulnerability and frustration in Thompson almost as quickly as it could inspire a sense of wonder: Why did this happen to me?
Who hasn't been swimming in the water and heard the Jaws theme song play in their head, or boarded an airplane with a flicker of fear that it could crash? Whenever we are faced with the possibility of tragedy, we calculate our risks, try to avoid being paranoid, and tell ourselves that everything will be okay: After all, what are the chances it will happen to us?
But what if you are that one person out of a million to be struck by lightning or survive a terrorist attack? There isn't a survivor of trauma who emerges unchanged, and there's even evidence that the greater the severity of the trauma, the greater the potential for post-traumatic growth. Some say they think of their life in two parts: who they were before the event—and who they became after.
Survivors question their ideas about fate and luck and wonder if they were "kept" alive for a higher purpose. Some struggle to return to everyday life, others feel a superhero's sense of immunity, and some are so physically changed that they have to relearn simple tasks like getting dressed and cooking dinner. But no matter the particular trauma or the wreckage it leaves behind, all survivors must cope with the same emotional reality: The unthinkable did happen—to them.
Mary Ann Cooper, emerita professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of Emergency Medicine, has spent her career studying lightning strike survivors. If a person doesn't go into cardiac arrest after being shocked with a million volts of electricity, they're likely to experience memory loss, brain damage, or temporary paralysis. Many can no longer multitask, so returning to work is difficult. But it's the psychological deficits caused by brain damage that can be most painful.
"Sometimes they don't realize they have any deficits at all," says Cooper. "They don't understand why their friends are telling jokes they don't get or why no one wants to spend time around them."
Certain events are especially difficult to overcome. In a 1997 study of how individuals fared after a plane crash, a tornado, and a terror attack, researchers found that everyone believed that the tragedy brought some positive changes to their life. But while tornado survivors reported the highest rates of enhanced closeness to family and friends as well as positive emotional growth, plane crash survivors reported the least. Researchers suggest this is because tornado survivors received the most local support, since the event affected everyone in a small vicinity. After a mass shooting like the 2012 tragedy in Newtown, subclinical levels of PTSD are often detected throughout an entire town. But if you live through a plane crash, you return to a community of people who have no idea what you endured. Plane crash survivors, much like shark attack survivors, carry an isolating, alienating grief that no one around them can relate to.
The psychic damage left behind by a trauma may follow familiar patterns—depression, nightmares—but some lasting behavioral shifts are unpredictable. Laurence Gonzales, author of Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, is working on a book about United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, killing 111 of the 300 passengers. He found that 23 years later, some survivors had returned to a well-adjusted life by telling themselves, "I know I'll never be in another plane crash."
Others still experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One 14-year-old boy, who had fractured his skull and broken his back when he was pitched out of the plane at 200 mph, became convinced in his later teen years that he could survive anything and purposely engaged in risky behaviors, like dancing drunk on the edge of a roof or jumping off a moving train.
Research shows that in the wake of large-scale disasters like a plane crash or terrorist attack, about 20 to 30 percent of victims develop symptoms of PTSD, and an individual's personality may offer the biggest clue as to why some are more resilient than others. Some people have what therapists refer to as an internal locus of control: They believe that they have a hand in everything that happens to them.
Individuals with a strong sense of ownership over their fate are more resilient and bounce back faster than those who see themselves as victims. Men, as well as survivors who have higher self-esteem, income, and education and lower levels of psychological disorders and substance abuse, are also likelier to be in the high-resilience group, explains Daniel Antonius, a psychiatrist at the University of Buffalo and New York University. Such survivors still struggle with what happened, but they are more apt to see the trauma as something they can overcome.
Debbie Salamone had trouble sleeping in the days after she was attacked by a shark. Every time she closed her eyes, her mind replayed the shark attack: a storm, a pivot, a sharp bite on her right heel.
The experience made Salamone more risk averse, maybe even more paranoid, than she was in the past. She is now afraid of being struck by lightning, too, and if she reads about the rare side effects of a medication, she's more apt to think those things might happen to her. "Arguments about the odds don't fly with me anymore," she says. "Even if someone says it happens to only one in a million people, I have a more acute feeling that I could be the one."
After a singular tragedy, individuals may find themselves reexamining their ideas about luck and fortune. Thirteen years after surviving the crash landing of American Airlines Flight 1420—which killed the pilot and 10 passengers—Brock Kartes can still see the pilot's bloodied head hanging out of the cockpit as Kartes escaped the fiery plane in clothes soaked with jet fuel. But he didn't grow depressed in the months following the plane crash—instead, he made a bucket list of all of the things he wanted to do before he died.
While nearly all survivors express feeling lucky to have lived through, say, a plane crash or a lightning strike, they also wonder why they were so unlucky to have experienced one at all. Individuals who believe in fate or supernatural forces may begin to worry that the universe has it in for them.
Survivors can begin to believe that they're always in danger, and such anxious thoughts can lead to a host of new fears and a string of irrational changes in the way that they live their daily lives. If you survive a school shooting, your idea of a "safe" place is going to change: If you're not safe at school, how will you ever feel safe at a mall or a ballpark? The nearly constant fear can cause some to shut down altogether.
Some trauma victims cope by facing their fears head on: One shark attack survivor taped a photograph of a great white shark to her computer screen and forced herself to stare at the picture in an effort to extinguish negative associations with the animal.
Psychologists believe that this proactive attitude is critical in moving beyond a trauma, but Gonzales says that many survivors of United Airlines Flight 232 successfully coped by keeping obsessively busy. One became a workaholic, another took up knitting, and another moved to India to learn Hindi. They effectively wiped out some of the terrible memories by distracting their brain with something entirely new. Steve Marshburn was 25 when a bolt of lightning pierced the glass of the drive-through window at the bank where he was working and struck his spine. It felt as if someone had hit him in the back with a baseball bat. He couldn't move his arms or legs, and as he lay on the floor, he thought of his pregnant wife and 1-year-old son. Marshburn has been unable to work since the event, and today, at age 42, he needs medications to sleep as well as to manage seizures, migraines, and debilitating back pain. Still, he says the lightning strike was meant to be.
Marshburn has since founded Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, which offers support services worldwide. He says that he's talked 21 lightning strike survivors out of suicide. "Many of them had pistols to their ears and were ready to pull the trigger," he says. Marshburn feels he's been put on this earth to assist the injured.
Salamone always considered herself an environmentalist, but her beliefs about protecting the world's oceans were cast in doubt after she was attacked by a shark. She felt betrayed. Yet a few years after the event, she began to think about things differently. "It's so rare to end up in the mouth of a shark that it defies reason. How could you be one of the 65 people on the planet that it happened to? It made me examine how I'd been living my life and what I should do in the future."
Salamone decided to devote herself to shark conservation, an important cause for those who care about protecting the diversity of marine life. "I've always loved the ocean," she says. "I wasn't going to let this animal change that."
She left her job and went to work for the Pew Environment Group, where she's now the communications manager. One of her pet projects is recruiting other shark attack survivors to lobby for shark protections. She and her fellow survivors were instrumental in passing legislation that closed loopholes in the ban on harvesting shark fins. She credits her conservation work with helping her to cope and—ultimately—heal.
"Being attacked by a shark gave me a huge sense of purpose," she says. "If I didn't make something positive out of it, I'd feel as if all of that suffering was for nothing."
Krishna Thompson, 47: Shark attack survivor
As Krishna Thompson lay on the beach after the attack, his left leg ripped up to nothing but bone, it occurred to him: I am the man who conquered a shark. He approached his recovery with similar resolve, working hard to chase away any negative thoughts with positive ones—even after learning his leg injury would require amputation.
Thompson counted down the days for six months until he could return to work on Wall Street. In 2002, on his first day back, he didn't drive in to New York City, which would have put less pressure on his leg. He insisted on taking the one-hour commuter train, pushing his way onto packed subway cars, and walking up the steps out of the station. He's taken the same route in the decade since, his leg often throbbing at the spot where it's connected to the prosthesis. Still, when a woman asked him to help carry her stroller up the subway steps recently, he didn't tell her he had a prosthetic leg. Instead, he nodded and said: "We'll just have to go slowly." He held onto the railing with one hand, the stroller in his other, and used his good leg to inch his way up the steps.
Sometimes he stands in the mirror and shudders at what he calls his "deformed leg." But he's quick to remember: It could have been worse. "Yes, you lost a leg," he'll tell himself. "But you have a whole other leg. You have two arms. You can walk."
Today, he and his wife have a daughter, Indira, 10, and a son, Chad, 5. As his kids have grown, he's realized the attack can still rattle him. He and his family were swimming in the pool one day when his son accidentally kicked his foot—and a shot of panic rushed through him. He nearly didn't let his daughter go on a class trip to a local beach. "I was scared they wouldn't watch her closely enough," he says.
When a Manhattan police officer was hit by a car and lost his leg, Thompson felt compelled to visit the man in the hospital. He strutted into the room in a suit, walked over to the windows, and put his leg up on the windowsill. "I heard about your accident," Thompson told the officer, whom he'd never met. Then Thompson lifted his pants leg and showed the young officer his prosthetic leg. The officer's face lit up, and Thompson said to him: "You're going to be fine."
- In 2011, there were 29 shark attacks along the U.S. coast. None were fatal.
- Odds of dying in a shark attack: 1 in 3.7 million
- Odds of dying from drowning: 1 in 1,134
- On average, fewer than one person is killed by a shark each year in the U.S., while an average of 16 fatal dog attacks are documented annually.
Tamara Pandolph-Peary, 44: Lightning strike survivor
It was 9:30 p.m. on August 20, 2010. Tamara Pandolph-Peary locked up the Men's Wearhouse in Springfield, Illinois, where she worked as a manager and hurried to her Dodge Caravan in the pouring rain. She opened the driver's-side door and was about to close her umbrella when she saw a blinding flash of light. Her next memory is waking up in the driver's seat, only she had no idea how she had gotten there. Her head throbbed. The van smelled like burning rubber. Later, she'd learn it was the smell of her flesh melted onto the gear shift.
A colleague drove her home, and her kids insisted she go to the emergency room. Doctors checked her heart, did a blood and urine test, and told her she was going to be fine. (Lightning strikes are so rare that doctors aren't always trained in how to handle injuries.)
Pandolph-Peary was back at work the next morning. A customer tried to make small talk with her, but Pandolph-Peary couldn't understand what the woman was saying. She began to feel crazy: "I told myself I was just tired."
But then she couldn't remember how to cook eggs or make spaghetti. When her son asked her for milk, she got confused. It was her primary care doctor who broke the news: She'd suffered brain damage when the lightning hit her. "It was hard when it became clear that doctors couldn't fix me," says the 44-year-old mother of three. "Every feeling became extreme."
What happened to Pandoloph-Peary is so rare that no one in her world could relate, not even her husband. It's lonely to suffer through a traumatic injury on your own, she says. While she looked the same as she did before the accident, her mind was forever altered. A forecast for lightning can send her reeling.
Pandolph-Peary doesn't have the energy to be as hands-on as she once was. She can't work, and she can't drive carpools—she lost her license when she picked up her kids from school, forgot the way home, and began losing consciousness while driving. Medication has helped control some symptoms, but nothing can restore her brain; it tires out quickly, and she has to work hard to focus. "Just getting dinner on the table is exhausting for me," she says.
Time has become all about prioritizing what's important. Pandolph-Peary finds ways to save up her strength so when her boys get home she can be "on" for them. Says Pandolph-Peary: "When you have only so much energy, you realize very quickly where to spend it."
- Between 1959 and 2010, almost 2,000 people in the U.S. died after being struck by lightning, an average of 38 fatalities each year.
- Florida is the number one state for deaths from both lightning strikes and shark attacks.
- Odds of dying from being struck by lightning: 1 in 79,746
Pierce O'Farrill, 28: Survivor of the July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado
Lying flat on the floor of the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Pierce O'Farrill worried the shooter would hear him breathing. The gunman, dressed in full armor and a gas mask, stood at the front of the theater with several guns, including an assault rifle, firing on moviegoers. O'Farrill had ducked down in the third row, using the seats as a shield, but he was still hit with bullets, twice in his left foot and once in his arm. The guy sitting next to him was dead, and so was the girl in front of him.
O'Farrill heard the shooter pacing the aisles. When his boot stopped inches from O'Farrill's head, the hair on the back of his neck stood up. O'Farrill assumed his next breath would be his last. "If this is my time, Lord, I'm ready," he prayed. But the gunman walked away.
O'Farrill, 28, credits the shootings with putting him on a spiritual journey. He can be so overcome with joy about being alive that just looking at the Colorado mountains can move him to tears. And he's felt nothing but gratitude from the moment he woke up from surgery after the shootings, a metal bar and two pins holding his arm to his shoulder. He has worked hard in physical therapy to regain use of his arm, and he's recently returned to his job with a Denver charity.
"I never felt anger at the shooter," he says. O'Farrill was still in the hospital when he first saw a photo of alleged gunman James Holmes on CNN. He says he felt nothing but empathy. O'Farrill thought about what the shooter's life must have been like: "What would it be like to be so consumed with hatred that you only think about hurting people?" As he lay in a hospital bed, he found himself doing a lot of interviews with the press—so many that nurses begged him to stop and rest. But talking about the shooting was the only way O'Farrill knew to make sense of what happened.
"I don't think there will be a day I don't think about it," he says. "I find telling my story therapeutic."
O'Farrill calls the year of the shooting the best of his life. A man of deep faith since his early 20s, he believes that God saved him to show others that forgiveness is possible. He's received hundreds of letters from people who say he's inspired them to forgive people in their own lives who have done unforgivable things. Says O'Farrill: "I believe every single person has a chance at redemption."
- Since 1982, the U.S. has had at least 62 public shootings with four or more fatalities, a report by Mother Jones found.
- While the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech resulted in the most fatalities (33), the Aurora shooting had the largest number of victims, including those killed (12) and injured (58).
- Lifetime odds of being killed in an assault involving a gun: 1 in 321
Frederick Clemens, 54: Plane crash survivor
Frederick Clemens remembers hitting a few bumps as Southern Airways Flight 242 took off from Huntsville, Alabama, with 63 people on board one Tuesday in 1977. The 18-year-old was on his way home from an Army training course, sitting beside a friend who was white-knuckled from the turbulence. Clemens reassured her it was fine.
Then the clouds grew darker. Some passengers up front heard loud bangs; it was hail on the roof. The lights went out; the engines fell silent.
Moments later, the plane was back in clear skies. Then a series of backfiring sounds was followed by silence. "No one panicked," Clemens says. Then flight attendants announced that the plane was going to make a crash landing.
The plane plowed through a pine forest at 100 mph, ejecting Clemens from his seat and sending him sailing. The next thing Clemens remembers is lying on his back in the grass. His body was covered in bruises and burns; he and his friends were three of 22 survivors—the only traveling group that survived intact. Later, in the hospital, an orderly would tell him: "Wow, living through a plane crash. That's the max."
Now, over 30 years have passed, and Clemens is married with a young daughter. But he still hasn't put the crash behind him. The experience led to an obsessive need to understand why his plane went down. He's read every book he could find about airline disasters and clipped every article printed about doomed Flight 242. In 1998, he went to work as a United Express flight attendant. "I wanted to prove that I could fly all the time and not go screaming down the aisles," he says.
As he flew around the country, he visited relatives of the victims and other survivors. He hoped meeting them would make him feel better. Sometimes, he felt worse. One survivor said he had been screaming for help. Why hadn't Clemens heard him?
Still, the experience led him to organize a reunion of all of the survivors. His father told him that the reunion was the reason that God saved his son. Many trauma survivors believe there is a reason they were spared; otherwise, it's hard for them to make sense of why so many others perished, but they didn't.
But Clemens doesn't believe that. It's too much pressure. "I could spend my whole life searching for a reason I was saved," says Clemens, "but I don't like to think that I have a single purpose in life."
- Average annual risk of being killed in a plane crash: 1 in 2 million
- Average annual risk of being killed in a car crash: 1 in 7,700
- An analysis of plane crashes between 1983 and 2000 found that of the 53,487 people involved, 51,207 lived—a survival rate of 95.7 percent.
- In 2010, there were 35,043 fatalities from transportation in the U.S. 32,999 involved motor vehicles, 723 involved boats, 823 involved trains, and 476 involved airplanes.
- Odds of dying from sun/heat exposure: 1 in 13,729