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Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

Summer is just around the corner and while most people think sunshine, vacations, and picnics with the family, those of us in the aquatic education industry begin thinking about the more dangerous side of summer: the very realistic problem of drowning. Every year we hear about children drowning, typically during the summer months, and usually the cause behind the drowning is one of two things:

  • Lack of supervision – A large number of drownings occur because children are not being supervised in a responsible manner. They are either left entirely unattended, left under the supervision of someone who is not capable of watching them, or find their way into an unsupervised/uncovered pool.
  • Lack of swimming skills – Many children either do not know how to swim or believe they can swim when they actually do not possess the necessary skills to swim independently.

Our goal at SCSC is to help children and families within our community enjoy water and make swimming a life-long activity that everyone can participate in and enjoy. However, we also believe that it is our responsibility to make people aware of the dangers associated with water. The safety of our students is our primary concern and this extends beyond the times they are in lessons with us. We want to make sure that all of our clients are aware of the signs of drowning, so that they are not caught off-guard and put into an emergency situation. Mario Vittone is a former helicopter rescue swimmer for the US Coast Guard and is a leading expert in drowning. In an article for Slate.com, Mr. Vittone explains the signs of drowning and what actions to pay attention to when at the pool or beach.

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sport fisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine; what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10 feet away, their 9-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know—from 50 feet away—what the father couldn’t recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.

The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and under-dramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children, ages 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents)—of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In some of those drownings, the adult will actually watch the child do it, having no idea it is happening. Drowning does not look like drowning—Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s “On Scene magazine, described the Instinctive Drowning Response like this:

“Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.”

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble—they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the Instinctive Drowning Response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long—but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs—vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure, ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can answer at all—they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents—children playing in the water make noise.

When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Drowning Statistics

  • Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.
  • From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.
  • About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.

What factors influence drowning risk?

  • Lack of Swimming Ability: Many adults and children report that they can’t swim.  Research has shown that participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children aged 1 to 4 years.
  • Lack of Barriers: Barriers, such as pool fencing, prevent young children from gaining access to the pool area without caregivers’ awareness. A four-sided isolation fence (separating the pool area from the house and yard) reduces a child’s risk of drowning 83% compared to three-sided property-line fencing.
  • Lack of Close Supervision: Drowning can happen quickly and quietly anywhere there is water (such as bathtubs, swimming pools, buckets), and even in the presence of lifeguards.
  • Location: People of different ages drown in different locations. For example, most children ages 1-4 drown in home swimming pools. The percentage of drownings in natural water settings, including lakes, rivers and oceans, increases with age. More than half of fatal and nonfatal drownings among those 15 years and older (57% and 57% respectively) occurred in natural water settings.

While we can never guarantee that a child is “drown proof” we hope that by providing information and resources, we can help families within our community be prepared this summer.

Because swimming is not only fun…it’s a necessity!

 

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning by Mario Vittone published on slate.com.

Drowning Statistics. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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