Drowning Before Your Eyes

Last night, while scrolling through my Facebook page, I came across a shared link from Slate.com: Rescuing drowning children: How to know when someone is in trouble – Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.

The shared link backtracked to Mario Vittone’s 2010 post Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.  I checked Mario’s About page and selected one descriptive line from among the 20 or so available.

Mario is a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea.

Yeah…he’s qualified to write a piece on drowning.

Clicking on Facebook links is not something I practice on a regular basis, but the title interested me.

You see, I have a new granddaughter.  Her Mommy and Daddy have a pool in their backyard and that means Sophia will play in it.

And, that means there is a possibility that Sophia could drown. (I know – kids can drown in the bathtub, in a bucket of water, at the beach….)

I’ve seen and experienced how quickly children can get into trouble while in the water.  It only takes a few seconds.  And, it can happen before your eyes…as you watch…without you realizing what’s happening.

Mario’s piece on drowning begins with the story of a captain who sees a little girl who is drowning. Her parents, in the water also, are only 10 feet away from her but have no idea the girl is moments away from slipping beneath the water. (After reading his About page, I wonder if he is the captain.)

As I read his words, I wondered how her parents could be so close and yet not realize what was happening.  In his next paragraph, Mario shared why her parents didn’t know…didn’t recognize she was drowning.

I’ll admit.  It sent a chill through me.

It’s important information – I don’t want you to miss it because you don’t have time to click to his link.  Here it is:

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 undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 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 ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC). 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:[Source for what follows: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14)]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

A drowning person cannot tell us they are in trouble.

Believe me – I know.  My own dad pulled me up and out of the water when I was young.  And, I grabbed my own son by the only thing sticking above the water’s surface…the hair of his head…and pulled him out.

Mario goes on to say that people who are able to yell for help and are thrashing around are experiencing aquatic distress. And, unlike true drowning victims, those experiencing aquatic distress can still assist in their own rescue by grabbing lifelines, throw rings, etc. (This is what we see most often depicted on TV and in movies.) But, we need to understand that aquatic distress doesn’t last long.  And, we need to know that this is not always present before the instinctive drowning response kicks in.

Mario offers other signs of drowning to look for when children, teens and adults are in the water:

  • Head bobbing low in the water, with mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes – no attempt to remove it
  • Not using legs – Vertical in the water
  • 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.

So, what’s important to remember?  If everything looks OK, don’t be too sure. They may be drowning and not look like it. To make sure, ask them “Are you okay?” If they can answer, they probably are. If they can’t, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.

Never leave children alone in the water.

Parents/Caregivers – Children + water = NOISE. When they get quiet you need to find out why.


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