How to Save Your Own Life

How a chair, rocks, aspirin, and a scarf can keep you alive in 12 do-or-die emergencies.

By Pamela F. Gallin | MD from Reader's Digest | June 2008

Rule No. 1: Never drive through standing water. As thousands of stranded motorists can attest, what looks like a small puddle can be much deeper. “It takes just 12 inches of water to carry a car away,” says Robert Sinclair, Jr., of AAA New York. If you do get stuck, step out of the car, which will likely stall when the water reaches the vehicle’s electronic controls. If the water is higher than the bottom of your knees or is moving too quickly for you to wade through, climb on top of your car and wait for help. Otherwise, get to higher ground.

If you suddenly become immersed (say, you drive off a bridge or into a lake or river), roll down the windows as soon as you can. Yes, it allows water to rush in, but that’s a good thing, says Sinclair. It equalizes the pressure, so you can open the door or swim out the window. Do it quickly, though, as the electrical
systems on automatic windows can get damaged and stop working when wet. A LifeHammer can shatter automotive glass and cut through seat belts; Sinclair keeps one between the driver’s seat and the center console in case of such emergencies. Break the side windows (windshields are usually thicker and harder to crack), and swim toward high, dry land.
In a hurricane or storm with heavy winds, hide in a closet or pantry. Don’t try to wade through floodwater outside—it can knock you over. If water is rising in your house, climb to the roof (as long as it’s safe to do so) after the heavy rain and wind stop, says Lt. Ana Wisneski of the U.S. Coast Guard. Bring plenty of water to drink, sun protection, a flashlight, vital medications, and white sheets or colorful towels to signal rescuers. Then wait for help.

Bee stings, food allergies, and medications can be deadly, even if you think you don’t have allergies. Symptoms include itching in one spot or all over your body, sometimes accompanied by a rash, swelling, and, in the extreme, swelling of the airways, which hampers your ability to breathe.
If you know you have a life-threatening allergy, form an action plan with your doctor, who will probably prescribe an EpiPen, which comes in child and adult doses. It delivers the drug epinephrine, which keeps the heart pumping, improves breathing, and gives you about 20 minutes to get to a hospital.
Even if you don’t have severe allergies, you can still be prepared for a spontaneous reaction. Slip a few maximum-strength antihistamines, like Benadryl Allergy capsules, into your wallet. The fast-acting tablets will begin to fight an allergic reaction while you wait for help to arrive. But since antihistamines can make you drowsy, don’t drive yourself to the ER.

If you’re in an office building and can’t get out, don’t panic. “In any emergency situation, the difference between survivors and nonsurvivors is that survivors remain calm and fight through their fear to find out, What can I do?” says Dr. Schneider. So think back to those fire-safety lessons you learned in grade school. Call 911. Close yourself in a smoke-free room and place a wet towel underneath the door to prevent any smoke from entering, says Dan McBride, a firefighter in New York City. Then get low to the ground, where you can breathe and see better, until help arrives.
If you’re in a house, get as low as you can and crawl outside as fast as possible. Don’t stop until you’re well away from the fire. Then call for help.

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