The lifeguard, moving quickly past Lindsey’s chair, seemed to come out of nowhere. Four paces later he was in the air, jumping right in the middle of where her children were playing.
Before she could get up, the teenage guard pushed her 10-year-old over the surface of the water and was backing up to the edge of the pool. Someone shouted the name of their child and the boy started crying. Her little boy had drowned right in front of her and she had no idea what was happening.
It was only when the guard let go of him and he ran soaking wet into her arms that Lindsey realized that she was the one screaming.
Drowning doesn’t look like what you’d expect
What did the guard see that this mother did not see? Drowning isn’t the violent, splashing cry for help most people expect. The lifeguard was trained by experts and experience to recognize drowning. Lindsey, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like while watching TV. Having your children near the water is a good idea to make sure you know what to look for, whether or not around lifeguards.
As a former Coast Guard lifeguard, I don’t get surprised by stories like Lindsey’s, and I hear them all the time. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet occurrence. The waving, splashing, and screaming that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us for is seldom seen in real life.
Drowning is the second leading cause of death in accidents
The instinctive drowning response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in water. And it doesn’t look like most people expect. There is very little splash, no waving, no yelling or cries for help of any kind.
To get an idea of how quiet and undramatic surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two leading cause of accidental death in children under 15 (just behind car accidents) – out of the 750 or so children who do it will drown in the next year, about 375 of them will drown within 25 meters of a parent or other adult. For ten percent of these drownings, the adult will actually watch them without knowing it is happening (source: CDC).
The instinctive drowning response
Drowning doesn’t look like drowning – Dr. In an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, Pia described the instinctive drowning response as follows:
1. Except in rare cases, drowning people are physiologically unable to call for help. The respiratory system was designed to breathe. Language is the secondary or superimposed function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speaking occurs.
2. The mouths of drowning people alternately sink below the surface of the water and reappear above the surface of the water. Drowning people’s mouths are not above the surface of the water long enough to exhale, inhale, and call for help. When the drowning person’s mouths are above the surface of the water, they quickly exhale and inhale as their mouths begin to sink below the surface of the water.
3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to stretch out their arms to the side and press them onto the surface of the water. Pressing on the surface of the water allows drowning people to use their bodies so they can raise their mouths out of the water to breathe.
4. During the instinctive drowning reaction, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving towards a rescuer, or reaching for rescue equipment.
5. From the beginning to the end of the instinctive drowning response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water with no evidence of a supportive kick. If not rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only fight on the surface of the water for 20 to 60 seconds before submerging.
Signs of drowning
This does not mean that a person who yells and hits for help is not in real trouble – they are suffering from water shortages. Not always present before the instinctive drowning reaction, water shortages don’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still help with their own rescue. You can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc. Look out for these other drowning signs when people are in the water:
• Head deep 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
• Do not use legs – vertical
• Hyperventilating or wheezing
• Trying to swim in a certain direction but not moving forward
• Try to roll over onto your back
• Ladder ascent, rarely out of the water.
How to save your children
So if your kids are playing in the water and everything sounds good – don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common sign that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. All they can do is look like they are treading water and looking up. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you okay?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank look, you may have less than 30 seconds to reach them. Remember – children playing in water make noise. When they get quiet, you come to them and find out why.