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Hysterical Strength: When Ordinary People Perform Amazing Feats Under Stress

The Idaho American Red Cross recently bestowed its “East Idaho Real Heroes” award on eight-year old J.T. Parker of Sugar City, who was commended for extraordinary bravery he displayed which saved his father’s life.

Less than a year ago, young J.T. had been assisting his father, Stephen, and his older brother Mason, age 17, as the trio worked together on Stephen’s Toyota Prius. The Parkers said that at one point, Mason had gone inside after sustaining a minor cut to his hand. While his son was inside caring for the injury, Stephen accidentally dropped the suspended vehicle on himself, after an adjustment to an axle.

“Jack it up quick! Jack it up quick!'” Stephen said he shouted, knowing that his then seven-year-old son was the only one that would be able to hear him.

“I couldn’t move at all. I was totally trapped, and then I passed out. It was all in his hands,” Parker was quoted saying in a CNN report. “I thought, ‘This is it. There’s no way he can jack up this car because it took my 17-year-old son and I both to jack it up the first time’.”

Though luck was against Parker’s chances of survival, what happened next borders the miraculous.

J.T., weighing only fifty pounds, quickly adjusted the position of the car jack and began jumping up and down on the device’s handle, slowly lifting the car off of his badly injured father. By the time Mason had reappeared, the youngest member of the Parker family had somehow managed to use the jack by himself to free Stephen from the weight of the fallen vehicle.

Stephen Parker’s fight was only beginning, though. Suffering from multiple broken ribs, it was difficult for him to breathe, but with the aid of his sons, Parker was airlifted to the regional hospital, and found to be suffering no internal injuries.

Hey, the youthful Clark Kent was able to do it…

Following the remarkable rescue, the question on everyone’s minds had been, how was J.T. able to lift the car? Certainly, the jack gave him a distinct mechanical advantage. However, when the car was initially moved into place, Stephen and Mason had worked together to lift the car. Following the incident, the family reported that J.T. had been unable to move the vehicle in the same way that he had done so before.

Although young J.T.’s story may sound remarkable, his life-saving actions represent one of several instances where individuals have seemed to muster incredible strength while in extreme circumstances.

In 2006, Tim Boyle, a resident of Tucson, Arizona, reportedly observed an accident where a Chevrolet Camaro struck eighteen-year-old Kyle Holtrust, pinning him beneath the vehicle. Boyle ran to the car, and somehow managed to lift the vehicle off the teenager, allowing the driver to pull Holtrust from beneath the car. Similar incidents have also occurred in 2009, where Nick Harris reportedly lifted a Mercury sedan off of a six-year-old girl, and in 2011, when Danous Estenor, a University of South Florida football player, managed to lift a 3,500 lb car off of a tow truck driver pinned beneath the vehicle.

Group of individuals help move a car from a burning wreck in Oregon.

Perhaps an even more remarkable incident occurred much earlier, in 1982. Similar to Stephen Parker’s circumstances, in 1982 Tony Cavallo had been working beneath his 1964 Chevrolet Impala when it fell off the jacks, pinning him under the vehicle. His mother, Angela, found Tony trapped beneath the car, and somehow managed to lift the car by herself, suspending it long enough to allow neighbors to replace the jacks in their position beneath the car.

Though modern science cannot fully explain such incidents, it is believed that individuals may respond to unusual, high-stress situations with involuntary increases in adrenaline. A 1988 paper featured in Circulation Research titled, “Adrenaline increases the rate of cycling of crossbridges in rat cardiac muscle as measured by pseudo-random binary noise-modulated perturbation analysis” proposed that such a mechanism might occur (granted, the study, as with most lab studies, examined rats rather than humans). The study’s results suggested that adrenaline “significantly increases” the rate of certain physical functions by “a beta-receptor-mediated mechanism.” However, subsequent studies have called into question whether adrenaline could travel quickly enough to the muscles, given the immediacy required in such high performance “miracle” rescues, as described in the instances above.

A complete understanding of the physical mechanism that allows such incredible feats of “hysterical strength”, as it is sometimes called, still eludes us. Still, it seems likely that under extreme duress, even the smallest among us–like young J.T. Parker–seem capable of physical strength that borders the extraordinary.

As for J.T.’s own thoughts on what may have aided him in rescuing his father, the explanation seemed clear.

“Angels,” the child said in an interview.

Whether or not that is indeed the case, the circumstances that allowed him to save his father last summer could hardly be called anything short of miraculous.

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