Guest Post by Gerry Goldshine
May 24, 1986
Like a movie that was haphazardly pieced together, so went the few conscious periods that I can recall of what was undoubtedly the worst night of my life, Saturday, May 24, 1986.
I had been investigating traffic accidents since 1978 and I was usually the one trying to explain what happened. Finding myself immobilized on a back board, in a hospital emergency room without knowing how I got there was definitely a new experience. Those familiar sounding engine noises I had heard? One was the generator powering the halogen lights of the Fire Department’s rescue truck while the other was the Port-a-Power for the Jaws of Life. The periods of darkness, confusion and memory loss I was experiencing was the result of a serious concussion that I had sustained, among many other injuries. My short term memory was thrown into chaos. That I had just been in an accident was just not registering in my brain. In fact, I was having trouble remembering one moment from the next. Losing my memory was among one of the most frustrating aspects of this grand adventure into which I had been so unceremoniously thrust.
As I lay there on that backboard, a jumble of thoughts flooded my mind, nearly all of them unbidden. Coupled with the building pain and the inability to recall events, I was feeling a supreme sense of confusion. While I can’t point to an exact moment of sudden clarity that triggered an epiphany, it was right around this time that I began to feel a sureness of thought. It is difficult to describe other than to say I knew that I was going to be okay and the more I focused on that thought the more certain of it I became.
Many weeks later, I had come to realize that without conscious effort I had adopted an attitude of survival in those crucial early moments of lucidity. I recalled some of the survival training I had received in the Army; the stories about how some soldiers would die from seemingly minor wounds because that is what they believed was going to be the outcome while others would survive grievous wounds due in large part to the belief that it was not their time to die.
I remembered more recent instruction I had received when I attended a “Street Survival” seminar for Police Officers. There, the instructors talked about developing a mental attitude of survival. Research was showing that, as with soldiers, those officers that had the expectation that they would survive any deadly encounter more often than not, did exactly that. Despite serious wounds or injuries or seemingly overwhelming odds, many officers lived in large part because of the conviction they held as to the certainty of their survival. Conversely, we heard tales of officers giving up in physical encounters or when shot or seriously injured because that was their expectation. I recalled someone at that seminar, perhaps it wasn’t even one of the instructors, going so far as to suggest that before every shift, as we looked into the mirror to check our appearance before going on patrol, as most of us invariably do, we take the time to remind ourselves that no matter what may befall us, we will persevere and survive. How one cultivates this can vary greatly; from religious tenets to personal convictions to something akin to the “Vulcan” logic of Star Trek.
Since attending that seminar I had been practicing my own version, every day before briefing. As I lay there trying to cope with the worst pain I had ever experienced, confused about what actually happened to me, I knew with a profound certainty that I would be okay. It didn’t take away the pain, both physical and mental; I faced months of healing and additional surgeries. Still, I knew that through whatever travails I encountered as a result of this collision, I would come out just fine.
Physical Conditioning for Survival
However, the mind alone cannot bring a person through such an encounter; the body must be equally prepared and conditioned. In the military, physical conditioning is a daily part of life. The more hazardous the mission, the more grueling the physical preparation for it. As a parachute trained Infantry Officer, I had to undergo some of the more rigorous physical conditioning in the Army and was tested regularly to ensure I was meeting physical fitness standards. Long distance running, calisthenics and strength conditioning were second nature by the time I left the military for civilian law enforcement. If possible, though not at the same level of intensity as I had done in the Army, I still maintained a daily physical fitness routine. My doctors later told me that my physical conditioning played a significant role in mitigating my injuries and in aiding my recovery.
Once you have made it through and survived a critical incident, as it is euphemistically called, what then? Dealing with the physical aftermath is a pretty straight forward, often arduous and occasionally painful process. Less known back then were what skillsets were needed to cope with the psychological trauma from not only the accident itself, but from the numerous surgeries, as well as grueling and very painful physical therapy. There are anxieties about family; have I worried them too much, have I let them down, how are they coping? There is a sense of isolation from your peers, which often grows in proportion to the time you are away from the job. The treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was essentially in its infancy back then. Much of what was known came from the study of Viet Nam veterans and as is frequently the case when it comes to the mind, the so-called experts didn’t always get it right often operating from false assumptions. Unfortunately, it would take three more wars to hone the treatment of PTSD. However, the subject of PTSD and how I coped is another story for perhaps another time.
Soldiers will often say that they are fighting less for any particular cause than they are for their companions alongside them. Truth be told though, when considering the mortal danger they have to face, the thought that keeps them from being paralyzed with fear is that it will be someone else, one of those same companions, that will get hit and not themselves. Police officers face a more personal, one-on-one type of threat. The good ones, the survivors, are nearly always taking time to imagine and plan reactions to those threats should they ever happen. Doing so builds confidence in their ability to persevere and ultimately overcome a critical incident.
I used to be asked by nearly every civilian ride-a-long I took out, “Aren’t you afraid of getting shot?” My response had always been, “Not really. I’m more afraid of some drunk driver at 2:30 in the morning, crossing the center line and hitting my car head-on.” Though the driver that hit me hadn’t been drinking, I really wasn’t surprised about having been in a head-on collision because I had seriously considered such a scenario. In a sense, that was part of my survival strategy. As is the case with critical encounters, I was not the only one affected by it and my story crosses paths with those of many other people. In respecting their privacy, those tales are theirs to tell or keep to themselves.
Twenty-six years later, I am still astonished to come into contact with someone who was somehow involved, in one way or another, in the events of that night. Their accounts are often poignant and heartwarming. Seldom considered is how the aftermath of an incident such as this ripples out like the surface of a pond after a stone drops into it, enveloping many more than just the principal people. As Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sang in back 1976, “Oh, what a night”.
Indeed it was.
Gerry was born in Providence, Rhode Island but raised in Southern California.
Upon graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, Gerry enlisted in
the Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After leaving active duty
in 1979, he worked for Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. From 1980 until his retirement
in 1996, he was a patrol officer, traffic officer, and a trainer at Petaluma Police Department.
Gerry is married, has a daughter and lives in Sonoma County, California.