Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What drowning looks like

I think I linked to this last year, but Lisa reminded me of it, and it's something that people should be reminded of at the start of every summer. (Sorry the timing's off for my antipodean readers.)

Drowning doesn't look like drowning

If someone is thrashing around and yelling, they're in trouble, but they're not actually drowning -- yet. And people can drown without ever passing through any sort of thrashing and yelling stage. Drowning can be very quiet, especially in children: "...children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why."

These are signs that someone is drowning (as opposed to "in trouble but not yet actually drowning"):
  • Head low 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
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • 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.

This is what someone who is drowning looks like.

It happened to me when I was a kid. I don't remember how old I was -- I might have been as young as 5 or as old as 10 -- but I was in a hotel swimming pool when somehow I stumbled into the deep end. I didn't really know how to swim, but I could dog paddle and I could swim under water for a few yards.

But none of that mattered, because as soon as the water closed over my head, I forgot about what little swimming I could do. I sank to the bottom, and then I was able to jump just high enough to get my mouth out of the water for a quick, desperate breath, and then I sank again. And that was literally the only thing I could do.

Sink-jump-breathe-sink-jump-breathe-sink-jump-breathe-sink-jump.... I was only a couple of feet from the safety of shallower water or the side of the pool, but I literally forgot how to do anything but sink-jump-breathe-sink-jump-breathe. If I had been alone, or if no one had been paying attention, I probably would have repeated that cycle until it ended with a final "sink" when I grew too exhausted to jump again. I would have drowned right there, in a hotel pool, in water that was barely over my head.

Fortunately my big sister was right by me and quickly (I now assume; it sure seemed like a long time to me!) grabbed me and pulled me into the shallow end. My mom was sitting right there and never noticed. Nor did any other adult as far as I know.

So remember -- especially those of you who are parents/guardians/caregivers -- drowning doesn't necessarily look like this. Drowning often looks like this.

[Edited for betterness.]

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  1. I, the big sister, did not learn to swim until the summer I was eight. I am only twenty months older than you and you were apretty solid kid at that age.

  2. Oh for fuck's sake. I didn't say you performed some sort of Baywatch swim rescue, nor did I say you picked me up and carried me. Since you were a head taller than me, you could still stand where the water came to the top of my head, and you grabbed my arm and pulled me two feet so I could stand with my head out of the water. There was no swimming or carrying involved.


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