If you’re one of many who have binged Reacher recently ― or read the bestselling books by Lee Child ― you’ve enjoyed lethal weapon Army veteran Jack Reacher delivering his share of wish-fulfillment vengeance in satisfying ways. Even though the character is 6’5″ and essentially a slab of muscle (convincingly played by real-life slab of muscle Alan Ritchson), Reacher does indeed bleed.
Of course, Hollywood has a long history of its leading men and women being punched, kicked, stabbed, and shot without any of it slowing them down (here we must pay particular tribute to the courageous Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Jack Reacher is no different.
We thought it would be interesting to ask some emergency department physicians to compare “Reacher time” to real-life time for treatment and healing of Reacher’s most notable injuries. The answers kick some butt of their own.
Injury: Knife slash across the shoulder blade
It’s a gash that would send any normal person to the ED.
Reacher time: Minutes. A cop cleans it up for him after the fight, asking: “Do you want stitches?” He declines. She says, “Super glue it is.” He’s immediately back in action.
Real life: Depending on what was cut beyond just skin,”treatment could take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours,” says Kenneth J. Perry, MD, assistant medical director with Trident Medical Center, an attending emergency medicine physician in Charleston, South Carolina. “If the injury does not seem to be close to arteries or other deeper structures, then the wound would be cleaned and closed.” This could mean stitches, staples, tape, or even medical glue. So the cop wasn’t too far off here.
“If it is a complicated wound with muscles or other structures that need to be sewn back together,” treatment and recovery would take much longer, Perry says. Regardless, Reacher would definitely be sore and probably not be throwing punches with that arm anytime soon (or risk reopening the gash if he does).
Also, “given the nature of the knife fight, oral antibiotics would likely be prescribed,” says Tamara Green, MD, an independent emergency medicine physician in Maryland. “Reacher is ex-military (and fight prone), so his tetanus vaccination status should be up to date.”
Injury: Headbutting (repetitive)
Reacher seems to headbutt as many people as he can and falls victim to his own signature move multiple times.
Reacher time: No healing needed, apparently. At one point during all this headbutting, Reacher splits open his eyebrow. He keeps fighting, unfazed.
Real life: Possibly weeks and even months.”Headbutting of any sort could easily cause a concussion, bleeding around the brain, or even a fracture to the bones of the skull,” explains Perry. Reacher uses his forehead to hit his opponents in vulnerable portions of their skull, such as the nose or eyes. This, says Perry, definitely lowers his risk. However, a hard hit to the head is what it is.
Concussion symptoms include headache, confusion, amnesia, stumbling, and loss of consciousness, says Green, and these would be immediate. Reacher, however, shows no ill effects. “Given his size and the size of his assailants, it’s possible he is causing more damage to them in the short term,” Green says. More likely it simply wasn’t in the screenplay.
Injury: Elbow to the face
Reacher time: Instantly. He’s back at it so fast that you almost miss him getting hit. A quick rewind will confirm it was a pretty hard hit.
Real life: Potentially days to weeks. In addition to a concussion, facial trauma could cause fractures to bones like the eye socket. “Bones at the lower portion of the eye socket sometimes need surgery to repair in order to keep the muscles that move the eye from being injured,” says Perry.
Injury: A dramatic car crash
Reacher is in the backseat of a police car that goes off a bridge into a river.
Reacher time: What injury? The car is completely submerged, yet Reacher doesn’t panic. He tells his fellow backseat passenger to “hold your breath” as he breaks the window of the car. The water rushes in, he swims out and is only merely inconvenienced by being soaking wet.
Real life: Real-life car accidents make a big dent, so to speak. “A patient in a car that falls over a cliff, even before being submerged in water, would meet trauma criteria and therefore need transportation to a trauma center,” says Perry.
Patients in high-speed accidents, he explains, can have unseen head injuries, abdominal injuries, broken bones, and in some cases injuries to major blood vessels. This would require a very extensive workup in the ED, with CT scans of nearly the entire body. And even if no serious physical injury exists? Car accidents inflict mental trauma as well.
Injury: Smoke/chemical inhalation
A chemical plant in a warehouse goes up in flames.
Reacher time: He walks out of the building as it explodes behind him. Oh, and in an earlier episode, he apparently suffered previous severe smoke inhalation while deployed in Iraq and was back on active duty “within 32 hours.”
Real life: Weeks, or more if tissue damage is severe. “Inhalation injuries can result in damage to nose, throat, and lungs due to heat, smoke, or chemicals during a fire,” says Green. “Reacher also had prolonged exposure to the chemicals, which could lead to dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath, cough.” Chemical poisoning would also require medication to help flush the poison out of the bloodstream, Perry says.
But wait, there’s more: “Blast injuries can include eardrum injury (pain, bleeding, hearing loss), organ damage (pain, internal bleeding), head injury (yet another concussion), and broken bones,” says Green. Burns from a fire could require a trip to the ED, wound care, or even admission for surgery.
Injury: Roughly a dozen full-force blows from a crowbar, including to the head, then falling into a pool unconscious, where he is held underwater and nearly drowns
Reacher time: Well…he’s human after all…ish. Reacher fights off his assailant, climbs out of the pool, and lies on his back for a minute or so to catch his breath before going on with his evening.
Real life: Most of us would be dead. “This scene is probably the most ‘suspend disbelief’ as far as his ability to continue fighting,” says Perry. First of all, he’s rendered unconscious, which is a guaranteed traumatic brain injury (concussion ― again ― or worse). Meanwhile, he’s submerged in a pool. “Even the best athlete may be able to hold his/her breath for a minute or two in a normal situation, but in the middle of a fight, when your heart rate and adrenaline are elevated, the need to breathe will increase,” he explains. “This may be more believable in a person as physically fit as Reacher, as he would have worked on his lung capacity more than the average person, but humans still need to breathe.”
If a patient is held underwater to the point of inhaling water, Perry and his team would likely place them on a breathing machine. And having your lungs fill with water could lead to longer-term problems like pneumonia. Bottom line: In real life, Reacher would need more than a quick moment to regain his composure.
Reacher’s Potential Healing Secrets? Physical Fitness, Training, and Clean Living
Reacher has decades of military training and is a combat vet. As such, he simply isn’t hurt as severely as someone less fit, says Green. “Reacher does deflect a lot of direct blows and does the majority of hitting vs getting hit, displacing some of the force hitting his body to prevent injuries.” (She is worried about the repeated headbutting, however. “This could be a problem for the character later in life, leading to memory loss, mental health decline, or possible movement disorders. Maybe that shows up in seasons five or six,” she jokes.)
The physical fitness ― and Reacher is elite in this regard ― helps even more. Military research has shown that people with poor cardiovascular or muscular endurance may be more prone to injuries, while other studies show that for people with obesity, cutaneous wound healing may be impeded. In one study, among older adults who regularly exercised, wound healing was increased by as much as 25%.
For non-Reacher patients, the best way to optimize healing is to optimize lifestyle, says Arin Piramzadian, MD, chief medical officer with StarMed Healthcare:
Eat a healthy diet. Prioritize antioxidant and vitamin-packed leafy greens, as well as fruit, and protein-packed foods like salmon, eggs, and grass-fed meats.
Exercise. For those just coming off the couch, try basic lunges, planks, pushups, and jumping jacks. “Any low-impact activity will help draw oxygen to the wounds and help the healing process,” Piramzadian explains.
Ditch the cigarettes. “Tobacco usage narrows your blood vessels, making it harder for your body to get the therapeutic nutrients it needs,” says Piramzadian. “It also restricts oxygen transmission, which is essential for wound healing and soft tissue injuries.”
Go easy on the booze. “Alcohol increases swelling and inflammation, which can make the healing process take longer,” explains Piramzadian. “This is because alcohol consumption thins your blood, which makes it flow faster and accumulate around injured areas.”
Thank your mom and dad. “Differences in the cells that give skin its resilience and strength during wound repair may explain why individuals heal differently,” says Piramzadian.
Nicole Pajer is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, AARP, Wired, and more.
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