This morning Tracy Wirtz and I talked about drowning prevention. Whenever I talk about drowning the worst cases I have seen come to mind, but also the silliest. One day I was in the Emergency Room when the ambulance brought in a 13 year-old who came close to drowning in a local hotel pool. He was awake and alert on arrival, but everyone was understandably shaken. The hotel pool had a deep end but no life guard.
The 13 year-old could not swim, the parents told us, but enjoyed bobbing in the shallow end, going to the bottom and then pushing up out of the water. Well, he bobbed and bobbed his way unwittingly to the deep end until he could no longer bob up high enough to reach the surface. The boy described to us looking up at the surface, seeing his parents helplessly looking back down on him. They could not swim either.
If it is not apparent by now that this was not a group of deep thinkers, here came the kicker: to try to rescue their boy, the parents told me that they shouted down to him “Get out of the pool!” They could not make the connection that “not being able to swim” means “he can’t get himself out of the pool.” Eventually a more capable adult jumped in and hauled the boy out.
This story illustrates several drowning prevention points. Water is inviting and fun. If you do not know how to be safe, though, water is deadly when you get (literally) in over your head. Being safe means knowing how to swim, swimming where there are lifeguards, and knowing what to do if there are kids by the water who do not know how to swim.
No toddler should be left alone by any water, including tubs and wading pools and shallow ponds. Like our goofy parents above, toddlers can not tell what is safe and what isn’t. Then it is easy for them to stumble, hit their head on hard tub sides or rocks, and go face down and unconscious into the water. All home pools should be fenced on all four sides with unclimbable fences and toddler-proof latches (too high for them to reach). Having the pool open to the back sliding door is an invitation for disaster.
Toddlers thus need to be watched all the time near water. It is impossible to watch a toddler always and everywhere, but near water you can not slip. My last drowning death was a two-year old whose parents lost track of him at home and he was found face down in the backyard pond. Near deeper water, toddlers should wear life jackets.
Older kids should have swimming lessons, always swim with a buddy, and swim in guarded pools or with alert, capable adults. Throwable rescue floats , like life rings with rope, should be handy. Ideally, adults should know CPR. Drowning victims are only saved when their breathing is restored at water-side. Bystander CPR is the key to survival- brains die of lack of oxygen before most ambulances have a chance to get to the scene. The only time in my experience that an ambulance crew revived a drowned toddler was when the firehouse was across the street from the scene.
Besides toddlers, the other group at high-risk for drowning is teenagers. Their tragedies often begin with drinking, and then swimming, boating, or diving in unguarded lakes or rivers. Since teenagers are such bad listeners, the time to warn them about this is when they are still young elementary school kids. That is the time of life when kids absorb the lessons they need for later.
If any of you readers have any other tips or exciting stories of drowning survival, feel free to comment!