Can wearing a helmet help you survive a tornado?
By Miguel Llanos, msnbc.com
(MSNBC) -- Jamal Stevens, 7, is among the few who can say they survived being picked up and tossed around by a twister -- last Friday he was sucked out of his bed and flung onto a grassy strip along an interstate behind his home. But how could Jamal or anyone survive such an extreme event?
"It is puzzling because one or two people in a place will be killed while others live, and it often seems to be luck," acknowledges Tom Schmidlin, a Kent State University professor who has studied tornado injuries.
Luck does seem to have a lot to do with it, in that one or more factors have to go your way to survive. It can happen, but chances are very, very remote.
"It's a lot like flipping a coin and have it land perfectly on its edge," says Jason Persoff, a University of Colorado doctor and -- on the side -- storm chaser.
A key survival factor seems to be "an oversized object being thrown with the patient" that actually protects him or her from the other debris flying through the air like missiles, says Persoff, who doesn't know of any specific studies but has treated such victims himself and spoken to peers about it.
"A mattress, a tub, a door, or sometimes another person" can offer that protection, he notes, while emphasizing that those same objects can just as easily become debris that kills.
Other factors that might come into play include one's age, a tornado's speed and where one lands.
"The very old and very young seem to be vulnerable," notes Schmidlin. Moreover, a person flung by a twister will likely also have been hit by debris "so surviving probably depends on those elusive factors of what you were hit with and your ability to survive injuries."
Mark Baker, an emergency room doctor at Children's of Alabama hospital in Birmingham, says children might actually have an advantage compared to adults when it comes to their chests and abdomens. "Their skeletons are a little more pliant," he says.
But the danger for children is the head area. Baker's ER group saw 60 children during the city's deadly twister on April 27, 2011 -- and two thirds had serious or critical injuries, most to the head.
Jamal, who doesn't remember anything about the ordeal, felt sore afterward but otherwise checked out OK after landing on a relatively soft grassy area along that interstate in Charlotte, N.C.
Jamal Stevens and his siblings were asleep on the second floor of this home in Charlotte, N.C., when a twister ripped off the top. Jamal was flung the farthest, but two sisters also landed outside the home. All survived with just cuts and bruises.
As for increasing one's chances of surviving a twister, experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently came out with some straightforward advice: Wear a helmet.
The idea was first proposed in the 1960s, researchers at the university's Injury Control Research Center wrote in an online commentary, and anecdotal evidence includes a boy who survived the deadly 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado because he was wearing a bike helmet when airborne debris hit him in the head.
Acknowledging the idea "never gained popularity," the team said it was time to raise awareness -- and even chastised federal safety tips as "woefully inadequate."
The tornado safety page at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the team wrote, does encourage people to protect their head "with anything available -- even your hands" but doesn't specify wearing a helmet.
"From a practical perspective," the team added, using one's hands has "major limitations."
For one, hands can't cover all head, face and neck areas, they stated. And second, using your hands and arms for protection means you can't then use them for other emergency tasks -- "such as keeping young children close by and protected."
Dr. Russ Fine, director of the injury research center, says that since the commentary was published Jan. 12, he's "questioned, publicly and privately, why they have not changed their web-based Emergency Preparedness recommendations to include helmets."
"I'm embarrassed that the nation's prevention agency hasn't modified its recommendations," he adds.
Msnbc.com forwarded the commentary to the CDC and a spokesperson was reviewing it for a response.
Baker, the ER doctor, agrees that helmets, especially with straps, and infant carriers for the youngest should be part of preparing for a tornado.
Children's of Alabama is also informally starting to get the word out, says spokeswoman Kathy Bowers. Efforts include a public service announcement on local TV with a meteorologist who touts the value of having helmets handy.
Fine senses that the helmet idea is slowly getting some traction. He went to a sporting goods store to buy bike helmets for two grandchildren during Birmingham's last bout of bad weather and the clerk realized it was for the storm, not exercise. "She also said she didn't own a helmet but that she and every other clerk" borrowed them from the shelves when bad weather hit, he says.
Fine himself has a helmet at home, as does his wife. "We have helmets in our safe room," he says. "We have our drill, we know what we're planning to do."