Last Christmas day 2016, I lived through a major martial arts failure which could have easily cost me my life. It all started with a minor Dad-fail on Christmas morning as my 2-year-old son was unwrapping presents. This was the first time that he understood enough about Christmas to get excited. I knew that he would appreciate his Christmas presents for the first time and I was really looking forward to giving him something special. He loves cars, machines and vehicles of every type, so I thought I’d go the extra mile and get him a small remote-controlled quad-copter drone. I had assumed that the technology had advanced enough so that controlling it would be easy enough for him to master. I was so wrong.
I was the one who ultimately ended up crashing the thing and breaking it while I was showing my son how it was done. I was so disappointed because I wanted it to be a very memorable Christmas for him. As it turned out, it would be a memorable Christmas for my whole family but for reasons other than the quad-copter.

I was disappointed and distracted when I went up to the school to do some training. This was not the best state of mind to be in when practicing at speed with razor-sharp high-carbon steel weapons. As I was practicing one of our Dao (sabre) forms, I stabbed myself in the back of my calf just below the knee. The sword tip penetrated about 8 cm into my calf and cut a bloody gash through a couple of my arteries. There was an explosion of blood and I realised instantly that this was a potentially fatal wound if I didn’t immediately do something about it. I stopped the fountain of blood with my hand and dropped to the ground to reduce blood pressure in my legs and started to concentrate on controlling my inevitable shock reaction.

A long time ago, I was speaking with an old work colleague who was telling me about NASA astronauts and how they are able to control their heart rate even while under tremendous life-threatening pressure. I used to think that this was amazing and that it must be a product of nature rather than nurture. That NASA Astronauts were just born that way. They’re not. It’s a product of training and mind-set. I forcibly dropped my heart-rate down to my normal waking heart rate which varies between the upper forties and early fifties.
Yes. Stabbing myself in the leg was a stupid thing to do. It was an accident. If I had recorded the event on video, I’m sure it would have gone viral on Youtube because everyone loves to see other people fail. Especially experts and professionals. Scrutiny and criticism from others comes with the territory of being good at something. And the more epic the fail, the more entertainment it brings. In my case, being a career martial artist, a SiFu and the head of CMAHC Australia would have made my accident all the more entertaining for these viewers.

The truth is that everyone fails. In fact, training is failure. It is a process of controlled, consistent failure over a period of time to bring about a big, positive improvement. Ask anyone who has been successful at anything whether they’ve failed in the past. If they’re honest, they will admit that their success came after a great deal of trial, error and failure. The other thing to consider is that no matter how expert you become at doing something, there is always a small chance of things going horribly wrong. Over thousands of hours of performing something correctly, there is always a chance of critical failure.

I find it comedic how some people I tell about this event interrupt me at this point to say things like, “Oh, you are supposed to staunch blood flow with a clean bandage, not with your hand…” Thanks for the advice. I’ll try to remember to run about looking for sterile bandages next time I’ve got an arterial bleed. I’ve done first-aid courses along with nearly everyone else. Let’s see how well the arm-chair critics can recite the first aid hand-book when they’re pumping out fountains of blood.

Anyway, the wound was not a clean cut. It was ragged but I kept enough pressure on it to stop the blood flow. Even so, I was sitting in a sticky, warm, red puddle. My wife and training partner, Sherrilyn, was training just outside the school building at the time and I called out to her and told her to call the ambulance. This was a lapse of judgement on my part because I had still not felt the full effects of the shock reaction. She left to call the ambulance since we don’t have a phone in the school and then the waves of vertigo hit me. I nearly lost consciousness at this point but managed to use the mental training that forms part of our Chang Hong curriculum to retain consciousness. If I had lost consciousness then, I may have let go of the wound and may have come close to bleeding out while my wife was calling the ambulance. It can take only 10 minutes to bleed to death under the right conditions if a major artery is severed. Once the shock had abated, I concentrated on keeping my heart rate slow and steady again.

Fortunately my parents were staying with us at the time, and Sherrilyn immediately sent them down to help me while she was calling 000. They were mortified. I helped to calm them down and apportioned tasks, such as directing the ambulance to the school building. I think if it was my son lying in a pool of his own blood, I would probably also have cracked.

I’ll cut a long story short and save you all the jokes that were thrown around by ambulance staff and doctors about a self-inflicted sword wound sustained on Christmas morning. The jokes continued until the doctors prodded the wound while I was lying on my stomach. The clotting dislodged and a fresh fountain erupted which must have been a foot or two high because I could feel it showering down on the back of my thigh. The jokes stopped at that point and doctors started rushing around shouting “Arterial Bleed!”. They got the flow back under control but my heart-rate did drop into the lower thirties at that point. Shock set in again and I had to get that all back under control again. After the cleaning and the stitching, I had my Christmas lunch in a hospital bed with Sherrilyn at my side. Fortunately, I did not require more invasive surgery to reconnect the arteries and there was no tendon damage. The wound was just sewn up and I was pumped full of antibiotics. Besides the antibiotics and pain-killers, my sword-wound treatment in the 21st century was probably no different to treatment for casualties on ancient battlefields thousands of years ago. There was some nerve damage to the skin on my heel which has still not fully healed, but otherwise my recovery was rapid. I was back into training after about 3 to 4 weeks of recovery. Yes, there was a lot of pain. I even had to take pain-killers from time to time. Something I generally avoid.

If you were like me as a young child, you loved weapons of every sort and were annoyed by little old ladies telling you that if you play with knives, you were going to get cut. I ignored them as a child, but as an adult, I have to acknowledge that they were right. If you play with knives, you’ll eventually get cut. It’s inevitable. People who do not have this kind of interest have a habit of shaking their heads in critical disbelief. Of course it’s a dangerous interest, but life itself is a dangerous pursuit. In fact, life is so dangerous that none of us are going to make it out alive. We can’t ever be completely safe because we’re all dying even as we debate the relative safety of our actions and the actions of others.

My advice is to pursue your interests. Life is too short to live it in accordance with someone else’s Life OHS Manual. Of course, we should always assess risks and try to minimize them, but eventually we’ve got to take the plunge and do what we love to do or we’ll spend the rest of our short lives sitting on the edge of the cliff nervously calculating the dwindling odds of our survival.

The first training I did when I started easing back into my program was the very same fighting form using the very same sword. It smelled strongly of my blood despite the cleaning. It must be psychological because surely there’s no trace of it left on the sword, but I still catch whiffs of the scent of my blood on it when I use it to this day.  

Written by SiFu Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia.