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It's Time to Talk About Drowning

By Kathy Hubbard

“As a mom I want other parents to know how fast drowning can happen. It takes moments. You have to be vigilant as if it’s a lion waiting to snatch your child.” These are the words that Morgan Miller (Olympic skier Bode Miller’s wife) said during an interview after their 19-month old daughter died from drowning in a neighbor’s swimming pool.

Shortly after I watched that interview, a reader sent me an article written several years ago by Mario Vittone, a retired U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer, titled Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning. I put two-and-two together and decided it was a call for me to write about the subject.

“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 when people enter the water,” Vittone wrote. He tells the story about rescuing a child who was drowning just ten feet away from where her parents were swimming. How could they not know it?

“Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event,” he explained.

And, quiet is what made Morgan Miller suspicious that her daughter had gotten herself into trouble. She saw a sliver of light through the door leading out to the pool and immediately knew something was terribly wrong. The toddler had walked out and, due to an instinctive curiosity she was attracted to the water.

Drowning kills close to 1,000 people each year. It’s the single leading cause of death among children ages one to four. Teens come in second on the high risk chart.

“Adolescents can be overconfident in their swimming abilities and are more likely to combine alcohol use with swimming – compounding their risk significantly,” Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP said when discussing the fact that the American Association of Pediatrics has changed their recommendations for preventing children from drowning.

Among the new recommendations the AAP adopted is that children should start swimming lessons around their first birthday. But they say that even the best swim lessons can’t “drown-proof” your child so it’s critical to make their environment safe. You know, put a four foot fence around your pool, don’t let your child near the water without an approved flotation device, etc.

Vittone talks about Instinctive Drowning Response which was named by Francesco A. Pia, PhD. Pia’s research focuses on what people who are drowning do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.

“Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs,” Vittone said.

“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.

“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,” He said.

“Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck.”

And finally, Vittone said, “One way to be sure? Ask them, ‘Are you alright?’ 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 need to get to them and find out why.”


Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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