Drowning: Do you know what you’re looking for?


My husband and I are water people.  Our relationships started by going out on his boat, and we spent many lazy summer afternoons our first year of marriage on the lake.  I had Josh in a pool at 4 months old, and hope to start swim lessons here in another month with him.  I expect that, as he grows, I’m going to spend many afternoons on the beach or the pool watching him swim, like so many other moms. But if you’re a mom who has a child in the water, do you know what you’re looking for?

Unintentional drowning is the sixth leading cause of accidental death for all ages, and the second leading cause of death for children ages 1-14. (The first is car accidents)  Won’t happen, you say. My kids don’t get near water without an adult.  We don’t have a pool.  They only go wading.  Or swimming at a neighbor’s while I sit on the deck at watch them.  Or the lake when we take the boat out, and two adults are sitting there watching.  Or a motel pool.  Whatever the case, you tell me, our kids are never around water without an adult watching.
Yes, I answer, nodding. But this year approximately 750 hildren are going to die from drowning. And 375 of those children will drown while being actively supervised by an adult within 20 yards.
Got your attention now?

Here’s why.  Most of us have seen the drowning victims on television–the woman bobbing up and down, thrashing in the water, screaming for help as she thrusts her head above water.  That is what we’re culturally conditioned to look for, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Drowning is quiet.  Very quiet.  There is no thrashing, no clawing above the surface, no screaming, no yelling.  Drowning people are physiologically unable to call for help; if they do manage to get above the water for a few seconds, their bodies will instinctively breathe, and they won’t be able to talk.   They exhale and inhale very quickly before they start to sink again.   Drowing people do not have control of their arms and are not able to wave or thrash around–the body instinctively takes over, and their arms will push laterally down into the water.  This allows the body to maybe be able to get the nose above the water for a few brief seconds.  Bodies generally remain upright, and if there is a struggle on the surface, it will only last from 20-60 seconds befor the body gives up and the person sinks. It is quick, quiet, and deadly.  You may be watching your child and not even realize there is a problem.
(One thing to point out:  a person thrashing and yelling in the water is probably experiencing some form of distress and rescue should be attempted by trained personnel, or a life jacket or ring thrown to this person.)
So what does drowning look like?  What should you be watching for?

  • head low in the water, with mouth open at water level
  • eyes closed or glassed-over and empty
  • wet hair over forehead and eyes
  • gasping and hyperventilation
  • a ladder climb, something you will particularly see in a pool where you can see below the water.  the person will be under water, with arms stretched above head, looking as if the person is trying to climb a ladder.
  • trying to roll over on back and not able to

If you have any doubts if a person is okay, ask.  If someone can answer, they probably are.  If you are watching children, and they get quiet–something is probably wrong.  You need to take a closer look to see what’s going on. If a person returns a blank stare when you talk to them, they are in serious trouble, and you need to get help now.  Call 911 before you get in the water, or have someone else call. 
And, please, do not make rescue attempts if it puts your life in danger or you are untrained to do so safely.  A backyard pool is probably okay,  but a few yards out into a lake is not.  Even if you are a strong swimmer, a limp body is very difficult to get back to shore, and there may be currents that you are not prepared for. For this reason, it’s best not to swim in a lake or other body of water unless a lifeguard is present.
Nothing is 100 percent preventable, but with a little education and a whole lot of vigilance, you can make this summer’s swim time fun and safe.


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