When Bears Attack!

As a Pediatric Emergency Physician, I’m calm in medical emergencies.  But good at one kind of emergency doesn’t translate to all emergencies.  One summer my family was hiking in Grand Tetons National Park.  The path ran along a lake, and nearby boaters began to shout, “There’s a bear coming towards you!”  We should have turned back, but someone nearby said, “My husband knows bears, he encounters them all the time.”  Since most bear encounters are fine, there were 10 of us in this group (bears are intimidated by numbers), and we DID want to see a wild bear, we strode on. I also had a can of Bear Repellant spray on my hip.

Soon enough, a brown bear came loping down the trail.  “Okay,” said our ‘bear guide,’ “everyone in the water.”  We stepped aside into the shallows of the lake, me ending up between the bear and everyone else, struggling to get the can off my belt.  Finally, it jerked free, I accidentally hit the trigger, and a 20 foot spray shot out towards Yogi.  He ambled on, unmindful of us.  “You weren’t supposed to spray unless he came at us,” chimed my daughter.  “I didn’t mean to,” I mumbled, embarrassed that I wasn’t more cool facing wild beasts.

Emergency situations are scary.  By definition, they’re life-threatening; we naturally get shaky when in danger.  Also, emergencies are rare, so we don’t get any practice knowing what to do. They can require unfamiliar skills, like CPR, or getting bear spray off your belt with trembling hands.

Everyone should have some idea how to handle common emergencies, particularly for their kids.  The three leading causes of death in kids are car crashes, firearm injuries, and drowning.  The best emergency preparedness is avoiding the injury in the first place: seatbelts and car seats, no cell phones while driving, swimming lessons, have a sober kid-watcher at pool parties, and locking up guns with ammunition locked up separately.  But if something bad does happen, having taken CPR and a first aid course really helps.  If kids are around grandparents or other elderly relatives, teach them how to dial 911, and be able to tell the dispatcher their address, and who they need (Fire, Police, or Ambulance).

On September 11, 2001, John Pelletier was the manager of Corporation Service Company’s office in the World Trade Center.  At 8:46 am he heard a rumble and saw flames from the tower next door.  Though the PA announced that their building was fine, he thought otherwise and ordered his office evacuated.  His 100-plus employees were on their way down the stairwell when the second plane struck his building.  If they’d stayed, they would have been trapped above the impact site, and perished.

Survivors of that day recall co-workers waiting for Emergency personnel to get them. In mass casualty situations, like hotel fires and airplane crashes, it takes time for Police and Fire to get to the scene and rescue people, and whoever waits for them may be too late.  For those who can run- run!

Above we discussed people’s unreadiness to respond to emergencies, because they happen so seldom.  No one gets to practice what to do.  So when you’re on a plane, do the practice. Read the safety pamphlet, watch the demo, identify your nearest exit, and rehearse in your mind: unbuckle, move to the exit, open the door.  When staying in hotels, find your nearest exit, go out it and down the stairs.  It’s good exercise, it’s fun to explore, and it may save your family’s lives.  Rehearsing prepares you to evacuate when necessary; those who wait do so at their peril.

We also already discussed being ready for personal emergencies.  Again, for kids this means preparing to avoid, or deal with, their most common threats- car crashes, firearms injuries, and drowning.  Buckle them  into their car seats or seatbelts.  Many times I see kids hurt in crashes who didn’t buckle up because they were “just going down the block.”  If the car is moving only 15 miles per hour and crashes, the child’s impact will be equal to a 15 foot high fall.

Firearm injuries often happen when exploring kids shoot themselves or playmates accidentally.  Lock up guns unloaded, with ammuniton locked up separately.  To prevent drowning, get kids swimming lessons, and swim where there’s life guards.  Finally, make sure kids know how to dial 911, tell the dispatcher who they need (Police, Fire, Ambulance), and their address.

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