Fictional secret agent Angus MacGyver, featured on an American TV series that ran from 1985-1992, had unparalleled ingenuity. MacGyver used everyday objects to create complex solutions to overcome obstacles and prevail in life-or-death situations, saving his life (and sometimes the world) with his quick engineering hacks. MacGyver’s ability to perform extraordinary feats with ordinary objects may seem far-fetched. However, ingenious improvised solutions to life-threatening problems are not merely the province of TV. Below are 10 real-life examples of people who had a “MacGyver moment,” thinking quickly and devising surprising solutions to save lives. Disappointingly, with fewer rubber bands and paper clips than we’d hoped.
10. Creating a Makeshift Radiator
James Glanton and Christina McIntee faced a nightmare scenario when, while driving through the rural back roads of northern Nevada on a wintry December day in 2013 on the way to play in the snow up in the mountains, their Jeep swerved off an embankment and overturned. The couple was traveling with their two children, ages three and four, and a niece and nephew, ages 10 and three. As temperatures in the area plunged to 21 degrees below zero, the family’s prospects appeared bleak. The couple had winter coats for the family, but no cell service and no prospect of being able to reach help on foot.
What Glanton and McIntee did have, however, was ingenuity. Glanton used the Jeep’s spare tire as a container for a fire he built using brush and wood found near the Jeep. The couple heated rocks in the fire and ferried them to the overturned vehicle, using the residual heat to keep the family warm as they waited for rescue (they knew relatives would have reported them missing and could hear helicopters overhead so they believed a search was underway). When the family was found after two days in the wilderness, none of them had suffered from frostbite or sustained any permanent injury from the day trip gone awry.
9. Signaling for Help While Pinned after a Car Accident
When Kristin Hopkins’ Chevy Mailbu skidded off US Highway 285 in Colorado and down a steep, wooded mountain pass, it was only the beginning of her five day fight for survival. Pinned in her overturned car, which was wedged between trees, Hopkins lacked food, water, and the ability to reach a phone to call for help. Somehow, even in these desperate straits, Hopkins maintained a hopeful outlook. When interviewed about her ordeal, Hopkins, a single mother of four, said she concentrated on thoughts of her children. “I never had the death thought in my head,” she said. “It was more or less like all right, well, when will someone find me?”
Hopkins used the only items she could reach, a striped umbrella and a Sharpie marker, to signal for help. She detailed her situation on the white sections of the umbrella and poked it through one of the car’s broken windows, hoping to attract attention. A passing motorist spotted the vehicle and called authorities, who were surprised to find Hopkins severely dehydrated and injured (her feet ultimately had to be amputated), but alive, having used the only tools at her disposal to try to expedite her rescue.
8. Using an MP3 Player to Navigate and a Snowboard to Survive
Former hockey Olympian Eric LeMarque didn’t initially realize his predicament when he snowboarded off-course, accidentally leaving the relative safety of the back side of California’s Mammoth Mountain for the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. LeMarque had only meager provisions—some gum, an MP3 player, his condo keys, and a cellphone with a dead battery—and he hadn’t told anyone where he was going.
However, with some ingenuity, LeMarque managed to survive a week in the frigid wilderness before rescuers located him. He used his snowboard to remove tree bark, which he ate and used for shelter. He used his MP3 player as a makeshift compass, using the strength of the signal from a local radio station to orient himself and to trek back up the mountain to increase his odds of being found. While LeMarque lost both feet to frostbite, his improvised survival strategies kept him alive in the wilderness five days longer than anyone had previously survived in the conditions he faced.
7. Saving a Life with Soda
Sugary drinks have taken the blame for shortening lives by contributing to obesity. However, for one car crash victim, a bottle of Coca-Cola in the hands of an astute rescuer proved to be a lifesaver. After hitting black ice on New Hampshire’s Route 140, Susan Robbins’ Camry hit a tree stump, overturned and smashed into a truck, leaving her unconscious in her badly damaged car.
Mark Hickey, a NH National Guard training officer happened by the wreck shortly after it occurred. Another motorist had already stopped and was on the phone with 911 dispatchers, so Hickey looked around to see how else he could help. It was then that he noticed a fire in the car’s engine compartment. Hickey initially tried to staunch the flames with hunting clothes he had in his truck, but when he couldn’t reach the fire, he created a novel fire extinguisher from another item in his vehicle—a 2-liter bottle of Coke. Hickey shook the bottle and used its contents to put out the flames. He held Robbins’ hand until rescuers arrived. When Robbins’ husband passed the crash scene on the way to the hospital, where his wife was being treated for her (relatively minor) injuries, he was surprised to notice a Coke bottle in her car, as Susan drinks only Pepsi. However, when the story of Hickey’s heroic actions came to light, a grateful Susan Robbins offered to buy her rescuer a Coke.
Amazingly, this is not the first time Coke-as-fire-extinguisher has saved a life; a British teenager also saved his father after his body went up in flames after a garden fire.
6. Reviving a Sick Passenger with a Hair Tie and Booze
Many passengers have urgently demanded a drink on a cross-country flight. However, when Dr. Patricia Quinlan asked for whiskey on her November, 2015 flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco, she had an exceptionally good reason. After noticing a man across the aisle fall out of his seat, Dr. Quinlan assessed him, determining his blood pressure was dangerously low and his heartbeat was irregular. Using the plane’s automated defibrillator to determine the sick passenger did not have a heart blockage, Dr. Quinlan then sought to stabilize the man, with help from an EMT and a nurse amongst her fellow passengers.
As the three medical professionals maneuvered in the narrow aisle, other passengers used smartphones to provide light as the team treated the unconscious man, who was likely suffering from dehydration. While a medical kit was onboard, no alcohol could be found to disinfect the IV needle, so Dr. Quinlan requested a flight attendant grab some whiskey from the bar cart to do so. Further improvising, Dr. Quinlan used her hair elastic as a tourniquet for the IV and, when the IV sprung a leak, patched it with tape another passenger had in her purse. By the time the plane landed, the sick man was conscious and able to walk off the flight. Dr. Quinlan emerged from the flight with a new nickname from the appreciative crew: “Doctor Angel.”
5. Chopping Down Power Poles as an Emergency Beacon
In late May of 2010, temperatures in the Wollaston Lake region were unusually cold, even for northern Saskatchewan. In these icy conditions, an unidentified outdoorsman became stranded after going out in a boat on a river and being unable to find an ice-free path out of Wollaston Lake, which the river feeds. Stuck in the bush, surrounded by bears on one side and an icy lake on the other, with no way to communicate his predicament or ask for help, the stricken woodsman waited for rescue. After almost a week alone in the wilderness, he used the only tool at his disposal, an axe, to try to send a signal.
The desperate man chopped down four power poles, knocking out power to more than 1,000 residents of surrounding communities, and forcing SaskPower, the regional utility, to send a crew to investigate the cause of the outage. When the SaskPower crew arrived, they discovered the stranded man huddled under his boat for shelter, “in a very distressed state.” Though town residents were displeased to spend more than 30 hours without power in temperatures that dipped below freezing, they could take some consolation in knowing that the power pole-chopping that caused the outage also saved a life.
4. Performing an Emergency Tracheotomy with a Pocketknife and a Pen
If you had to choose a time and a place to face a health emergency, you couldn’t do much better than the Bakersfield, California restaurant where community college trustee Pauline Larwood started choking in September of 2013. Larwood was attending a symposium on Valley fever and the nearby restaurant was packed with top doctors from around the country. When Larwood started choking and the Heimlich maneuver did not help, several of the doctors present jumped into action to improvise to perform an emergency tracheotomy to save Larwood’s life.
Dr. Royce Johnson, a UCLA medical professor and chief of infectious diseases at Kern Medical Center, used a friend’s pocketknife to make an incision. Dr. Thomas Friedan, Director of the CDC, monitored Larwood’s pulse. When someone called for a pen, Dr. Paul Krogstad, a UCLA medical professor, broke it in half, placing the hollow tube in the incision Dr. Johnson had made. Larwood was rushed to the hospital, and released the next day, expected to make a complete recovery thanks to the ingenuity and quick reflexes of her fellow diners.
3. Creating a Spacecraft Air Filter Adaptor Using a Sock and Duct Tape
“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” These immortal (and often-misquoted) words entered the national consciousness during the Apollo 13 lunar mission in April of 1970. The spacecraft became crippled, with two out of three fuel cells inoperable, after an oxygen tank burst. The three-man astronaut crew hurriedly moved into the smaller lunar module to reduce their electrical usage to preserve enough power to get back to Earth. However, the team quickly faced a new threat: the buildup of exhaled carbon dioxide in the lunar module would kill the astronauts if they and the NASA team on the ground couldn’t devise a way to filter it out.
The spacecraft was equipped with some backup canisters of lithium hydroxide to remove carbon dioxide, but the square canisters didn’t fit the lunar module’s round openings. NASA engineers, led by Ed Smylie, worked diligently to find a solution. The jerry-rigged adaptor they created, which was reproduced by the astronauts using the material onboard their spacecraft, included plastic from a garment bag, cardboard from an instruction manual, a tube sock, and duct tape. This makeshift air scrubber enabled the astronauts to keep breathing until their safe splashdown on Earth days later.
2. Using a Paddle and Ladder to Stay Fed and Hydrated After a Shipwreck
In 1971, Dougal and Lyn Robertson, along with their three children, set forth on the voyage of a lifetime. Lyn and Dougal, a retired mariner, had sold their farm, ploughed the proceeds into a 43-foot schooner, and planned to sail around the world to show their children the “university of life.” However, 17 months into their journey, the family, plus a student hitchhiker, got more life experience than they could have bargained for. The boat was boat was struck by a pod of whales and quickly sunk, leaving its six passengers on an inflatable raft and, after that deflated, a small dinghy.
The group had limited food and water and had to be resourceful to survive. They made a spear out of a paddle and used it to kill turtles and a shark, which they used for food and hydration, supplemented by rainwater they caught in containers. Because the rainwater that collected in the boat was polluted by turtle blood, Lyn, who had been a nurse, administered enemas using tubes from the rung of a ladder, to keep the group hydrated. These improvised solutions kept the family alive during the 38 days they were adrift before a passing fishing vessel spotted their flare and rescued them.
1. Jerry-Rigging a Pediatric Nebulizer at 30,000 Feet
In September of 2015, the parents of an asthmatic 2-year old made a mistake that could have cost their son his life, accidentally placing his medication in checked luggage for a transatlantic flight from Spain to the US. Luckily for the parents and the toddler, who had an asthma attack during the flight, Dr. Khurshid Guru, director of robotic surgery at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, was on board. After determining that the child’s oxygen levels were at dangerously diminished levels, Dr. Guru took action.
The onboard medical kit had only an adult inhaler, which the child was too young to be able to use effectively, but Dr. Guru was undeterred. Using the inhaler, a water bottle, a plastic cup, some tape, and an oxygen mask, he fashioned a makeshift nebulizer to deliver the medication to the child without requiring the young patient to do anything other than breathe through the device. The child’s oxygen levels improved, and by landing, the toddler was playing with his grateful parents.