What I learned about resiliency after being shot by a disgruntled employee

As one of the world's leading experts in neurobiology, Dennis Charney had been studying trauma victims for years before becoming one himself.

Dennis Charney: I was the victim of a violent crime. In August of 2016 I was coming out of a local deli in Chappaqua, New York, where I live, and I was walking out with a bagel and ice coffee, which was my regular routine, turned toward my car and all of a sudden I heard a loud boom, looked at my shoulder and saw blood gushing out. 

It turned out I was hit by a shotgun from an assailant that I didn’t immediately recognize, because I just mainly paid attention to save my life and ran back into the deli where I was helped by local customers and folks who worked at the deli to make sure that the assailant was not going to come into the restaurant to hurt me and maybe other people.

What I initially did was do back of the envelope assessment of whether I was going to live or not. In fact, there was a customer right next to me and he said I’m going to be all right. And I was thinking wait a second, he’s not a doctor. How does he know? But I said to myself, “I’m a doctor.” And so I thought to myself well I didn’t pass out; I still could think okay; I felt that perhaps the pellets, and I ended up being shot with 15 pellets that had missed vital organs because I wasn’t passing out. 

So I had some confidence immediately after I was shot that I was going to live. And shortly thereafter the police arrived and arrested the assailant. Then a local ambulance, a volunteer ambulance came and took me to the Westchester Medical Center, which had a trauma center, where I was evaluated and found that I was going to live.

But there were several episodes that were part of that initial event that I will never forget. 

One was the heroism of ordinary people who happened to be in the deli that day: some who ran toward the assailant to make sure he was not going to get away and he was not going to come into the deli. Others called the police and the ambulance right away. And then when the police came they showed courage going out to arrest the assailant who had a shotgun. I’ll never forget that day. 

And then it turns out when I was taken to the hospital and I was evaluated and I want to get to Mount Sinai where I’m the Dean, as soon as it was safe, as I was about to be transferred my son, who is a doctor, was waiting outside my door with a police officer, Officer Davenport. 

We didn’t know who he was, but it turned out he was a local Newcastle police officer who happened to be off-duty heard about the shooting, came to the trauma center in Westchester Medical Center with the idea that he was going to prevent any further violence upon me and my family. And he said to my son, “I just wish I was there to take the bullets.” This is a man that didn’t know me, didn’t know my family, was a hero and he’s somebody that I will never forget.

And then I was taken to Mount Sinai where I was admitted to the intensive care unit and that’s when the process of recovery started. 

When I was in the bed at the Westchester Medical Center’s trauma center I started to think, “Who would want to shoot me?” 

And I started thinking back and then it occurred to me that maybe there was a disgruntled faculty member that we, Mount Sinai, had terminated about six or seven years before that he had been found guilty of scientific misconduct and that led to the termination. I had no contact with that individual for six/seven years, actually, I barely knew him when he was at Mount Sinai, but I was thinking is it possible that it was him? And it turned out that that was the person who shot me. 

I had been studying resilience for the last 25 years. I also study depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and other such conditions to develop new treatments, but about 25 years ago my colleague and I, Steve Southwick, thought maybe we could learn from people who had been traumatized and either didn’t develop problems with anxiety or depression or substance abuse or if they did they recovered—in other words, they were resilient. 

So we ended up studying hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who by our definition were resilient, and they came from all different ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, all different kinds of trauma ranging from war to congenital disease to victims of natural disasters to victims of poverty and physical and sexual abuse. 

And through all that research, both subjective and objective type of research, we had to find what it takes to become resilient. In fact, we published a book called Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges and through that we identified factors, in fact, ten factors that related to becoming a resilient person.

And so here I got shot. I became a trauma victim, and in fact, once you’re a trauma victim you are a trauma victim for life. 

And one of the things that occurred to me shortly after I was shot, in fact when I was in the intensive care unit I thought, “Now I have to walk the walk. Now I have to show whether I’m a resilient person.” 

And over the course of my recovery starting in the ICU I found that a lot of the factors that we had identified from the resilient people we studied and came to admire, helped me. So in a very personal way, I verified the work that we had done in studying resilience to actually help you recover from a trauma—my trauma.

As one of the world's leading experts in neurobiology, Dennis Charney had been studying trauma victims for years before becoming one himself. He was shot at a relatively close range outside a deli by a disgruntled former employee, who was eventually apprehended. But Dennis reckons that he learned more about resiliency in that experience than he ever did on the job, as he was able to see at people at the deli turn from strangers into a fully fledged support unit, willing to fight for the forces of good and right his wrong. It's a powerful story. Dennis's latest book is the masterfully written Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges.

Impossible Burger hits grocery stores on Friday

Can Impossible Foods beat other brands — like Beyond Meat and Tyson — in the war to dominate the alternative meat industry?

Impossible Foods
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Impossible Burger will be available in 27 Gelson's Markets stores in Southern California starting Sept. 20.
  • Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods sell plant-based burgers in restaurants, but only Beyond Meat sells products in grocery stores.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Amazon pledges surprisingly bold climate change goals

The move comes one day before more than 1,500 Amazon employees are set to walk off the job as part of the global climate strikes.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday plans to swiftly combat climate change.
  • Some parts of the plan include becoming carbon neutral by 2040, buying 100,000 electric delivery vans and reaching zero emissions by 2030.
  • Some Amazon employees say the pledge is good but doesn't go far enough.
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