Dr Norman Swan on The Moment That Changed His Life - Men's Health Magazine Australia

Dr Norman Swan on The Moment That Changed His Life

As a teenager, the future voice of medical common sense was involved in a terrifying accident that taught him about the human capacity to endure.

When I was 14, I was a member of a youth club in Glasgow. For the Easter long weekend we’d gone to the south of England and were returning by bus. We came to this big junction just north of the Midlands called Scotch Corner, where we stopped for petrol and then this little old bus continued into the Pennines, a trail of hills that runs down the centre of England. At the highest point of the Pennines, the bus conked out and we were stuck. The weather was pretty bad – it had just started snowing – so nobody got out. The two bus drivers immediately set to work trying to fix the problem. They realised the petrol wasn’t getting into the carburettor, so they started siphoning petrol directly into it from an open can. Gradually the bus filled with fumes. That’s when the engine must have backfired as suddenly the bus burst into flames. 

I was sitting three or four seats back from the front door. There were flames everywhere and I didn’t want to panic, but I hesitated too long while other people jumped out of the bus. Once I’d got my thoughts together, I moved towards the door where the fire had started and was confronted by this sheet of flame. When I tried to breathe, there was no air to breathe in. There was this young girl in front of me, trying to get out, but she couldn’t get the window down. I managed to force it down about nine inches and pushed her out. As I pushed myself out the window, I remember feeling this overwhelming pain. Then I blacked out. 

I came to on the road, completely dazed. As I walked away from the bus, people started pointing at me. That’s when I looked down to see that my trousers, socks and part of my shoes had burnt off along with my skin.

Nobody died in the accident, amazingly. But the fallout of my injuries was several weeks of very painful recovery. It was an incredibly frightening experience for a kid and I developed PTSD as a result, although nobody knew what that was in those days and my parents certainly had no understanding of it. I’d get these flashbacks and, even to this day, if I go into an enclosed space like a plane, I’ll check where the exit is just in case I need to get out in a hurry. 

Why do I say that accident made me a man? When you experience trauma, you learn what is of value in life. I learned that what saved people’s lives on that bus was the fact that many of us looked after each other before we tried to look after ourselves. The other thing about trauma is that it forces you to discover what you can cope with and come through. 

That trauma taught me that, no matter how bad something is, eventually, when times get less bad, then you will bounce back. It’s not like I came out of that experience like some steel-belted commando, ready to take on the world. What I learnt was that, with time, you can get through a bad experience and come out the
other side.

Subsequently in life I’ve had a few occasions where I’ve been pushed to the limits of what I can deal with. There was this one incident when my family was on holiday in Italy and my daughter had a very bad accident on a bicycle and suffered a brain injury. She wound up in hospital, blind and paralysed on a ventilator. But over time, she also found that ability to bounce back. In fact, my daughter had twins in January this year. 

Now if you’d told me at the age of 14, when I was recovering from my injury that, “Things will get better”, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now I know differently and it’s a lesson that’s been reaffirmed by my daughter’s experience. During some periods of your life, it’s very hard to bounce back, but that accident taught me that eventually you will.  

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