Love is a drug.

I think I owe my good friend Shon Clemons a ‘piece of the action’. Our conversations, texts, and emails back and forth from RMW (Rogue Manor West) to his Detroit dig each day spawn many of the ideas that ultimately turn in to the Lessons Learned blogs. The LL’s are free and I don’t make any money writing them, so, upon reflection, I guess that Shon earns exactly nothing but my praise.

That’s funny because it brings to mind what we (back on the road) called the “Shit X Shit” algorithm. Sorry for the street vernacular, but “Garbage in, garbage out” didn’t come close to accurately portraying the horror we saw some nights on the street. The ‘shit times shit equals shit’ analogy fit those special events like a glove.

Rodin's 'The Thinker' sculpture is now in Abu Dhabi - Esquire ...I remember parents who had their daughter lay down on the new mattress that they bought at the store so they could drive it home without taking the time to safely strap it down. As the parents accelerated and merged onto the freeway with their family truck, the mattress turned into an airfoil and vaulted the girl up and into southbound I-75 traffic. She never stood a chance.

The recovery effort was hampered by hundreds of cars traveling 65 miles per hour, none of their motorists knowing that they were driving over the remains of a recently deceased teenager.

I remember the dad who couldn’t afford his crack cocaine habit. He brought his young daughter along with him to the crack house. He smoked away while the dealers would take turns aggressively molesting his offspring.

I remember when Jaime Rodriguez Jr. and his cousin Augustin Pena took a 15-year old runaway named Stephanie Dubay that they found at the Marigold Festival home with them. After a night of partying, Rodriguez and Pena decided to kill Steph for fun. They stabbed her to death then beheaded her and dismembered her body. A female friend staying at the house on Jean Street took Steph’s head to the police station in a freezer bag.

I could go on. I have over three decades of such memories. They haunt me still.

I also have memories of accidental deaths. Those weren’t any easier to reconcile. On the road, at a factory, in the garage. I could be describing the thousands of suicide scenes as well, but today I want to stick to accidental deaths and how training can prevent them.


Let’s talk about the melanocortin system for a moment. The melanocortin system is hugely important in humans. It is a central component of our on-board autonomic defense mechanisms. Whether regulating UV light damage to our skin or driving us to eat when our energy reserves are low the melanocortin system protects us without us ever considering its vigilance. One of the additional functions of the melanocortin system is its function to rush inflammatory chemical responses during physical trauma in an effort to minimize critical tissue damage.

In regards to its energy reserves function, you can only get fat when you eat more energy than you expend. Obesity and certain forms of heart and digestive issues (including those with fatal consequences) are exacerbated by the limitless availability of ‘empty calorie’ foods, fatty foods, and ‘fast’ foods in our environment coupled with low levels of physical activity we exert daily. The compilation of these destructive factors is not easily overcome. In fact, it’s easier and more fun to eat Taco Bell until you can’t stand up and then veg out in front of the tube than it is to get up, work out and choke down your quinoa. 

So what?

Having an intact central melanocortin system complete with a functioning signal path is critical for normal energy reclamation homeostasis. What that means is that as long as your melanocortin receptors are functioning as designed you cannot overeat unless you WANT to. You CHOOSE to.

It seems that each year I have to write a cautionary tale about the dangers of confined space entry. In the United States, there are 2 confined space entry deaths each week.

Confined spaces are defined as those areas which are large enough for someone to enter into to perform a task, yet have limited or restricted means of entry and exit and aren’t designed for continuous occupancy.

These areas are often typified by the types of toxic environments and atmospheres they present. It’s normal for these areas to have too much or too little oxygen, explosive potential, free-flowing solids, or excessive heat – many of the types of environments that contribute to the impairment of human senses for self-preservation leading to poor judgment, unconsciousness then death.

In 2007 a disaster occurred on Showalters’ dairy farm in the Briery Branch community of Rockingham County, Virginia. Patriarch Scott Showalter noticed that a manure transfer pipe had become plugged in a 20 x 20 pit only 8 feet deep. Scott climbed into the pit to clear the pipe and was overcome by methane gas fumes.

Colorless. Odorless. Deadly.

You’ve learned wrongly that methane smells like rotten eggs. I’ll share what I learned from my genius son Nico with you. When you smell sewer gas or the flatulent bastard standing behind you on a packed elevator is mostly methane gas, but it has mixed with the decomposition of organic material (food stuffs, vegetables, etc.) in the sewer or bowels producing smells (like hydrogen sulfide) creating that rotten egg smell.

Scott Showalter’s was DRT, dead right there when he fell into the pit. Deprived of oxygen by an atmosphere formed from methane in the confined space. As horrible as that is, what happened next was even worse, and perhaps inevitable.

Inevitable from the point of view that self-preservation isn’t the only human drive. We choose to bond as families and that familial bond is powerful, at least as powerful as the urge to overeat. Further, reward circuits in your brain transmit signals from your pleasure center making you happy during many circumstances when you are around your family members, so you try to repeat those eventualities.

When Scott went down, four other family members, one at a time went in after him in a rescue attempt that would prove fatal. Five people died in a domino effect driven by the instinct to save their dad, their husband.

They chose against logic to enter this fatal environment.

I remember in Michigan in 1989 when five farmworkers from the same family died after each entered a pit in the same manner as the Showalter’s family. One by one going down to save the other, each dying from the gas fumes. This pit was 10 feet deep but roughly the same size. The first to die was the 65-year-old dad. Then his sons, first the 37-year-old and then the 28-year-old. A 15-year-old grandson died followed by a 63-year-old. No one else died in this incident only because there was no one left on the farm.

More recently a farmworker died while trying to fix a broken valve in an 8,000-gallon polyethylene storage tank. There was liquid whey in the bottom of the tank. Liquid whey is known to produce carbon dioxide gas. A plan was hatched and one farmworker stood on the fork of a forklift as the other farmworker lowered him down into the tank to replace the valve. He chose to go in.

The forklift operator couldn’t see into the tank and the fork blocked much of his view into the 16-inch hole at the top of the 12×12 foot tank. Worried that it was taking the co-worker too long and that something might be wrong, he leaned far enough to look into the tank and saw his coworker was down and out. The rescue team he called determined the farmworker died from the displacement of oxygen with carbon dioxide within seconds after being lowered into the tank.

Look before you leap.

Thankfully the forklift operator didn’t jump into the tank to save his coworker. He’d be dead too. He chose not to go in. You see, you have to fight the urge to hurry to your own death.

That isn’t instinctual, in fact, it’s counterintuitive.

Think back to the First Aid course you took when you were younger. They always warn you to scan the environment to ensure that whatever befell the victim you are about to assess and perhaps administer aid to will not happen to you.

In fact, step one in the Red Cross first aid guidelines says;

Before administering care to an ill or injured person, check the scene and the person. Size up the scene and form an initial impression. Pause and looks at the scene and the person before responding. Ask yourself the following question: Is the scene safe to enter?”

Heck, what the Red Cross web site suggests is what I call The Gift of Time and Distance. Checking your 5 and 25’s, addressing the near targets first but ensuring that you look up and out as often as you look down and in.

The problem with our emotions is that we assign a greater level of importance to our personal belongings and our loved ones than we do to everyday external schema or actors. This complicates things. When a loved one is in peril, we will abandon our normal level of caution and jump in to save them. That CHOICE can cost you your life.

So, just like you have to train yourself and condition yourself to eat healthy meals, drink a glass of water before you dine, exercise regularly and count calories to ensure you are burning as much or more than you are taking in to keep from gaining weight; you also have to train to be equally vigilant in avoiding situations where there is a higher likelihood of physical injury or death.

Case in point. The Patel’s.

While it’s true that 400 people die in pool-related accidents each year, most of these tragedies are singular events. Yesterday, three family members drowned in their backyard pool in New Jersey.

The Patel family moved into their East Brunswick home less than a month ago. They had a local pool company respond to their home a week ago to open it for the season.

Yesterday, as Mom and Gramps looked on, the 8-year-old Patel daughter slipped and fell into the 7-foot end of the pool. While she was only allowed to wade in the 3-foot end, the wood deck that surrounded the pool allowed her to play near the deep end. The young girl lost her footing and fell from the deck into the deep end. Mom jumped in immediately after, then Grandpa. The big problem they all faced now was surviving the encounter.

Unforeseen circumstances.

Each of us is likely to encounter an unexpected interruption into the lock-step behavior patterns of our daily lives. Sometimes it will be something as simple as a traffic crash. Other times it might be a life-or-death situation.

The outcome of the situation will largely depend on your level of training, experience, and whether you have rehearsed mentally and actually for this event.

Train for a traffic crash?

Absolutely. If you do not rehearse what to do, which questions to ask, what to take photos of and who to call, you will likely miss or skip a step and the result could be the failure of a successful insurance claim. 

Let’s project for a minute that today it isn’t a simple fender bender. Today, someone is trying to abduct your child. Someone just walked into your nail salon with a gun. Someone is threatening you with a knife at an intersection and demanding your car.

While principally the same, the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and others are going to work in concert to send messages to your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to make better decisions in emergencies in order to protect your health and safety.

The problem with evolution depositing you in an environment where there is a low level of danger, ample food sources, plenty of water, and shelter from the weather and dangerous animals is that your brain got lazy. Part of that laziness includes an on-board system in your brain designed so that you won’t expend calories needlessly.

It’s referred to in my classes as denial. Mom Patel didn’t think twice. She jumped in to save her daughter and it cost her her life.

Legitimate consequences.

Grampa Patel then acted in response to Social Proof.

The confounding effects of stress, danger and social investment (here the speculation that a family member is in mortal danger) lead Grandpa to leap before he looked.

Social Proof is a phenomenon that occurs when a dangerous incident is happening fast and our brain is alternately tied up between fight, flight, freeze and wrestling with denial (Did that really just happen? Is this guy with the gun serious? Is this a joke? And so on.)

In those instances (like the confined space entry deaths I wrote about earlier) the people around the first person that jumps in to help will do exactly the same thing without thinking. Mom jumped in so Grandpa jumped in.

The corollary is true as well. With no investment (or low investment) and having no social role models, sometimes people will walk by and ignore a fellow human in peril.


How can training help?

Danger takes a healthy chemical toll on your brain and your heart. Facing danger your BP (blood pressure) rises and while you remain in the fight – if it reaches above 175 beats per minute – you could shut down and go blank. You will lose the ability to think clearly, to act in a manner to save yourself or others, and to control your emotions.

Training can address denial. Training can address the physiological and psychological demands of dire emergencies and give you a chance at deliberate and decisive steps to mitigate the danger and allow you to survive the encounter.

What I haven’t told you yet was that none of the Patel family knew how to swim.

Training – or that incident, simply learning how to swim – could have changed the outcome.

But training in pre-event / prevention would have gone further. Rehearsals with the daughter on actions to take if she ever fell into the pool and was alone. A couple of simple things (a throw rope or shepherds crook) on the deck within reach of anyone (including the 8-year-old). Rehearsals including falling in the pool and getting out on your own (or at least to the 3-foot side), I could extrapolate more scenarios but I’m sure you are getting the point.

Education is the sign on the side of the pool telling you to get out during a thunderstorm. Education is a sign showing the steps of CPR affixed to the pool for at-bang and right-of bang thinking. True Left-of-Bang thinking means conducting a cognitive task analysis of the situations you will likely encounter – then learning, studying or hiring someone who is a SME at the task to create a training program for you so that you don’t fall prey to a dangerous, previously unforeseen hazard.  

Hate is a choice.

So, I’ll end today with where I’ll start in a future Lessons Learned. Love is a chemical (amongst others, oxytocin). Love is fun and generous and scary and blind, and a bunch of other adjectives.

Hate is a choice. I’m not talking about anger (which you can track with an oral swab and chemical analysis or an fMRI), or rage (same, both also have visible physiological and biological manifestations). We’re not talking about contempt or disgust (both essential emotional stances), I am speaking specifically about hate.

There’s a lot of hate out there this week. I would ask you to remember that you choose hate and therefore you can master it and control it.

Hate is also a lot like a sneeze or a yawn. If it occurs around you (or because of you) then you could become victim to it or create a situation of Social Proof where those around you start hating too. Your mirror neurons will kick in and more hate will manifest.

The reason I added that thought-provoking message to epilogue here is that just like all the incidents I covered above, hate can have dire, fateful and fatal consequences. You can decide where and how to prevent it.   

Training changes behavior.

  • Greg

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