Book Excerpt: 'The Survivors Club'

Read an excerpt from Ben Sherwood's new book about what it takes to survive.

ByABC News
January 19, 2009, 1:05 PM

Jan. 19, 2009— -- The publisher provided the following excerpt of "The Survivors Club" to ABC News. The book will be published Jan. 26, 2009. Click here to visit The Survivors Club Web site.

The Three Rules of the Survivors Club:

The knitting needle pierced her heart. Then it saved her life.

Ellin Klor savors the irony, but it wasn't always so, especially when doctors cracked open her chest in the operating room to pry out the wooden needle that had punctured her breastbone and penetrated her right ventricle. Today her ? ngers stroke her yellow blouse, tracing the spot where she was speared. You would think that a spike as thick as a Number 2 pencil in your heart would ? nish you off. But, no.

January 9, 2006, was her lucky day.

It began as an ordinary Monday. The fty-six-year-old children's librarian went to work in Santa Clara, California, then drove the after-school car pool for her daughter and fixed dinner for her family. Klor is a spark plug, pulsing with the energy of countless hobbies and an endless list of projects. Her choice that night was whether to make table deco-rations for a scholarship fund-raiser at school or to go to a meeting of her new knitting group. She almost stayed home but was anxious to show the gang some new patterns. So she grabbed three bags stuffed with books, yarn, and needles, and headed to a friend's house on Portal Avenue in Palo Alto. The knitting circle had been meeting for less than a year, and Klor loved being the teacher.

She parked her tan station wagon on the quiet street lined with London plane trees. Already late, she could tell from the other cars that some of the knitters had arrived. She hoisted her bags from the backseat. "The scourge of a librarian," she recalls, "carrying too much stuff around." Hurrying across the sidewalk, she followed the pathway to the one-story ranch house. The curtains were drawn and the porch was lit softly. Klor climbed the first of two wide steps, hardly treacherous, and then stubbed her foot. Suddenly she was falling down. Hands full with three bags, she tumbled forward and slammed into the ground, landing chest-first on a sack filled with unfnished knitting. She rolled over, stood right up, and scolded herself: You shouldn't have been carrying so many things.

Klor is five foot four with soft hazel eyes and a generous round face. She's admittedly a little plump and has always been a bit of a klutz, banging into things and tipping over, so her latest spill wasn't exactly a surprise. A quick check: Her knee was scraped but her clothes weren't torn. When she took a breath, her chest hurt, but she figured it was nothing. So she collected herself, gathered up the bags, knocked on the door, and was greeted by her girlfriend.

Inside, the knitters were already working in the living room. Klor wanted to get started, but the ache in the middle of her chest was growing worse with each breath. It wasn't an ordinary pang. This was different. She looked down at her red Façonnable sweater and lifted it up. The next image is ingrained in her memory. A jagged splinter of a wooden knitting needle, nearly four inches long, was jutting from her chest. It had broken in half, piercing her clothing and lodging in the middle of her bra right between her breasts.

"Oh my God," she whispered.

Her friends gasped at the needle and urgently calculated the options. First and foremost, should they try to pull it out? "No, don't touch it," Klor declared. It was pure instinct: She didn't want anyone to go near the injury until she was at the hospital. Doctors would say later this was the ? rst decision that helped save her life. Plucking the spike would have been like pulling a plug or uncorking a bottle, and she might have bled out in the living room. Indeed, when Australian crocodile hunter Steve Irwin was speared in the chest by a bull ray while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef in 2006, some experts believe his fatal mistake was yanking out the stinger. The ray's venom didn't kill him. Rather, when he ripped the serrated barb from his chest, it wounded his left atrium and ventricle, causing more bleeding and cardiac arrest. The damage from pulling out the stinger was far greater than the trauma of it going in.

Now Klor and her friends faced the next critical question: Should they jump in a car and race to the emergency room? "No," Klor decided. "Call 911 right now." Waiting for the paramedics was a second lifesaving choice. If the needle had moved even the slightest amount in transit to the ER, the injury to her heart might have proven fatal. So Klor carefully sat down on a sofa to wait for the ambulance. She felt alert and even noticed something very odd. She had been impaled and yet there wasn't a single drop of blood anywhere. How was this possible? The next string of images flew by like a strange TV drama about herself. Paramedics. Stretcher. Si-rens. IV. Oxygen. Emergency room. CT scan.

At the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, Klor waited anxiously for the ER doctors to tell her the extent of her problems. To distract herself, she focused on her daughter, Callie. Klor had waited until she was forty-two to have a child and had been blessed with a beautiful girl. Ever since Callie's birth in April 1993, Klor had found real joy in life. Now in the ER with a knitting needle jutting from her chest, she wondered: How can I die when I'm finally happy? The answer was clear: She needed to stay alive for Callie. Her thoughts also turned to her husband, Hal, a research engineer and tough guy who once hiked two miles on a broken ankle. His idea of a vacation involved trekking in the Himalayas, and he sometimes teased her lovingly that she was "a little wimpy." What would Hal say when he heard about this?

When the ER team finally briefed her on the results of her scans, she felt the first flood of fear. Their tone was urgent. The needle had penetrated her sternum, the long flat breast-bone that's supposed to protect the heart, lungs, and major blood vessels from trauma. Over the years, her physicians had extracted every imaginable object sticking from every conceivable body part, but they told her this was brand-new. With fifty million knitters in the United States, there were literally hundreds of millions of needles across the country, but in the trauma world Ellin Klor was a celebrity.

Paparazzi-style, a young doctor snapped her photo and then took mug-shot close-ups of the offending needle. Then the doctors delivered the really scary news. The point of the needle had grazed her heart, nicking the right ventricle. They could see internal bleeding. They needed to operate as soon as possible. Klor gave them her consent, and they rolled her up to the surgical suite and prepped her for the operation. This was her last memory of the ordeal.

Less than an hour after her tumble on the porch stairs, trauma surgeons would cut her chest open and crack her sternum. They would stitch up her heart. They would wire her breastbone back together and sew her up. They would leave a seven-inch scar from her neck to the middle of her chest. They would save her life. And then, by chance or fate, the knitting needle would save her life all over again. In fact, Klor's real struggle for survival was just beginning.

1. The First Rule: Everyone Is a Survivor

On the bright side, it's probably safe to say you're never going to end up with a knitting needle through the heart. But it's equally indisputable that eventually you will face some kind of life-and-death crisis or struggle. Dr. David Spain has a blunter way of putting it. He runs the trauma and critical care department at Stanford Medical Center and sees what happens to regular people all the time. Every day, he says, some of us get dressed, kiss our families good-bye, walk out the door, and get run over by cement trucks. There's no rhyme or reason, but it happens again and again.* I don't mean to depress or scare you. It's just a reality that survivors understand. No matter how hard we dodge, deny, or resist, a cement truck or a hurricane or some other calamity is waiting around the corner for each of us.** Eventually, everyone joins the fellowship of men and women who have been knocked around by life. Admission is inescapable. Membership is inevitable. The first rule of this book is that everyone is destined to become a survivor.

For our purposes, survivor is defined as "anyone who faces and overcomes adversity, hardship, illness, or physical or emotional trauma." Survivors keep going despite opposition and setbacks. They may want to quit but they still persevere. Some even manage to excel under the worst circumstances. They make the most of misfortune. They grow in ways they never could have imagined. They don't just exist or subsist. They live fully. In the jargon of the ?eld, they thrive. Whether they survive six months or sixty years, they make the most of their time. Survivor comes from the French survivre, which means "to live beyond or longer than." It originates from the Latin supervivere. Super means "over, beyond" and vivere means "to live." Survivors quite literally are super livers.

* Fatal accidents involving trucks are routine, but it's a little surprising how often people run into cement trucks. In May 2007 in Puyallup, Washington, for instance, a forty-seven-year-old man was killed when his Mercedes was struck by a cement truck. In April 2007 in Roseville, California, a sixty-year-old pedestrian was killed by a cement truck. In February 2007 in Washington, DC, a homeless man was struck and killed by a cement truck. And in January 2007 in Saddle River, New Jersey, a retired surgeon driving another Mercedes was crushed by a cement mixer.

** According to Time magazine, "91 percent of Americans live in places at moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, ?ooding, high-wind damage or terrorism."