Spend time listening to surgeons and you might get the impression that there are some extremely lucky people among us. "It doesn't get any luckier in life than this," a German doctor commented last week after operating on Harry Moeller, a builder whose pneumatic drill flipped out of his hands, somersaulted into the air and skewered him clean through the neck. He cracked jokes on the way to hospital and apparently felt no pain.
Cases of such unbridled good fortune abound. "He was extremely lucky," a Grimsby-based surgeon remarked having completed an operation on an 11-year-old boy whose game with a snooker cue ended abruptly with the tip of the cue protruding from his stomach and the butt jutting out from his scrotum. Then there was Ron Hunt of California, who in September became known as the "Miracle Man" after he fell face first on to a powerdrill, forcing the 18in bit into his eye and out through his skull. Lady luck, it seems, is keeping herself busy.
Of course, in all of these cases, the surgeons simply mean that the person involved was lucky to survive. Despite the grotesque images released by hospitals, people get away with all sorts of stomach-churning injuries. In freak accidents, suspiciously often, the penetrative object, be it a drill bit, snooker cue or whatever, goes in one place and out another, severing neither vital arteries or nerves on the way, and leaving entire organs unscathed. Every time, it is a close shave though: "If it had been a few millimetres either way, it would have been fatal," or so the phrase goes. But why do some people get all the luck? The truth is that they don't.
"The stories always say it's been a near miss, but that's nonsense most of the time. It often doesn't matter where the thing goes," says Christopher Bulstrode, professor of orthopaedics at Oxford University. "The basic rule, which always surprises me, is that if it goes in slowly enough, it pushes important things out of the way." That is why major arteries and nerves always seem to be so perilously close to whatever it was the patient got rammed into them. They were simply nudged to one side."
The body's ability to shrug off what appear to be horrendous injuries is largely down to arteries and nerves being so elastic and slippery. Bulstrode recalls a case some years ago in which a group of builders were mucking around with a new digger on a gravel heap. The builder sitting at the digger's controls somehow managed to bat his colleague with the steel bucket at the end of the digger's arm. Moments later, the builder was dangling 10ft in the air, both thighs impaled on the bucket's steel teeth.
At first, attempts to get the man down failed, so eventually, the teeth on the bucket were sawn off and the builder was sent off to hospital with them still embedded in his legs. In the operating theatre, Bulstrode and his team removed the teeth, and then checked to see how much damage had been done. "To my amazement, there wasn't a single nerve or artery damaged. The teeth had gone right through both legs and just pushed everything out of the way," he says.
Such supposedly lucky outcomes are neither uncommon nor new. In the second world war, pot shots taken across the trenches led to countless "close shaves" as bullets just missed major blood vessels. Again, in many cases, they were just pushed out of the way. "By the time the bullet got to the other trench, it wasn't actually going that fast," says Bulstrode.
Organs have a tougher time avoiding injury, though some are better than others. Because it is reasonably mobile, the stomach often fairs well in accidents. The liver is much less mobile though and suffers because of it. In car crashes, it is common for the liver, one of the heaviest organs in the body, to tear itself from the blood vessels that hold it in place.
It is not just stretchy, slippery blood vessels and nerves that can evade damage by being nudged out of the way. The American surgeons who removed the drill bit from Hunt's head in September said that the damage he suffered was relatively minor only because the bit pushed his brain aside rather than going straight through it.
Sometimes, the brain isn't able to get out of the way, though, and when it takes a direct hit, luck does play a part. In 1997, newspapers carried horrific x-ray images showing a five-inch knife embedded to the hilt in a woman's head. Alison Kennedy received the shocking injury when she was attacked by a man on a train while visiting her sister in Surrey. Although the knife went deep inside her brain, it became lodged roughly along the line that divides the twin hemispheres of our brains, missing a lot of vital brain tissue. The amount of brain damage was relatively minor, considering the wound. The knife also stopped just short of the brain stem, which lies at the base of the brain. Damage the brain stem, and death is almost certain: it controls your breathing and tells your heart when to beat.
The brain is a hotch-potch of areas that range from being so sensitive that the slightest knock will cause serious damage to so apparently redundant that you would hardly notice if they weren't there. The tiniest amount of damage to certain outer regions of the cortex, a layer of brain roughly above your ears, for example, can cause permanent paralysis to a part of the body. But damage parts of the frontal lobes, and you might not notice. "The frontal lobes only do a bit of emotion. You can scoop out tonnes of the stuff and it doesn't seem to make much difference," says Bulstrode.
The worst injuries are often caused by things going into the body extremely fast. High-speed bullets cause far more damage than conventional bullets because they are going so fast that arteries and nerves are simply severed rather than nudged out of the way. They also cause shock waves that multiply the damage. "The shock wave literally tears the tissue to pieces," says Bulstrode.
Even slow-moving objects can cause horrific damage if they hit the wrong spot though. Arguably the worst at avoiding injury is the eye. "Although it's well buried in the skull, there's nowhere for it to go, so it can't move aside if something pushes on to it," says Bulstrode. Though Ron Hunt was considered lucky for not dying of his drill-induced injuries, he lost an eye where the drill bit entered his skull. The hands are also particularly bad at avoiding damage. Because all the tendons, nerves and blood vessels are so tightly packed in, cuts to the hand can easily damage these tissues.
Despite its weaker spots, the body seems well equipped to take the kinds of injuries we are likely to sustain. "The human body has to be, and is, extremely resilient to injury," says Bulstrode. "It's absolutely staggering what it can put up with."