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Reach, Throw, Row, then Go

June 17, 2013

by Paige Brown, Museum Blogger-in-Residence

Whether you are 9, 19, 39 or 89 years old, your summer plans might include a few days at the neighborhood pool or nearby water park. Who doesn’t love water on a sweltering summer day?

A trip to the pool is fun in the sun, but it also carries responsibilities for both kids and adults. Just listen to Graham Snyder, emergency physician at WakeMed Health & Hospitals since 2002, who talked at the SECU Daily Planet Theater during Innovations in Health Day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Baby swimming. Image by Peasap, Flickr.com.

Baby swimming. Image by Peasap, Flickr.com.

Drowning is the number one cause of traumatic death of children under the age of 5 in the United States. It surpasses other causes of traumatic death including handguns, burns and car accidents. That is the bad news. The good news is that drowning is 100% preventable.

“85 percent of kids who drown have never had their first swim lesson,” Snyder said during his talk on Saturday, June 15.

Drowning isn’t best prevented by staying away from the pool. Quite the opposite: training to be a strong swimmer, and staying smart about safe swimming conditions, are the best forms of prevention.

“The best defense against drowning is parental and life guard vigilance and learning to swim,” Snyder wrote in a WakeMed blog post on drowning in May, 2013. “If a parent can overcome fear and get swim lessons for their child, they will break the cycle of fear and reduce the risk of drowning for generations to come.  Drowning is a silent but devastating tragedy for families.  It takes normally takes several minutes to drown, but it can happen silently right in front of your eyes.”

Both kids and adults should also be aware of the true signs of drowning. Unlike many drowning scenes in the movies and on TV, the traumatic experience is often silent and unrecognizable by those who haven’t learned the signs.

“Drowning does not look like drowning,” Snyder said. “When kids drown they are totally silent.”

Drowning is almost silent, like the sound of someone choking only able to occasionally suck in air. A person who is drowning, especially a child, does not want to sink, so they push as hard as they can with their arms and their legs under the water. Because they are pushing down instead of flailing their arms out of the water, the only visible sign of their distress is a head bobbing up and down in the water.

“As they get more and more tired and their head slips beneath the water, a horrifying fear kicks in and they surface enough to get a breath,” Snyder wrote in his blog post. “Then, down they go again.”

Countless of times, Snyder said, parents and other adults mistake a child who is drowning for a child who is playing a game under water, bobbing up and down silently. On top of the fact that drowning doesn’t look like drowning according to our perceptions of what it might look like — someone flailing in the water in obvious distress — it can be nearly impossible to see a child bobbing up and down underwater in even the clearest of pools when lots of people are splashing and kicking up the water.

Adults and parents should also be smart about water safety and how to safely make a water rescue, Snyder said. The proper procedure is “Reach, Throw, Row, then Go.”

“Only fools rush in,” Snyder said.

According to Snyder, the first option for making a safe water rescue, especially if making a rescue in the ocean or flowing river, is to grab a stick or pole to help someone out of the water if they are close by. People who are drowning resort to their instincts, instinctively grabbing and holding onto anything nearby that is stable and floating. If the person who is drowning is too far away to reach with a stick or pole, the second option is to the throw a life jacket, float, basketball, or anything else that floats.

“You wouldn’t think that something like a basketball could save the life of someone who is drowning, but it absolutely can,” Snyder said.

The third option, “Row,” is to get into a boat, canoe, raft, or other floating structure to go to the drowning person’s aid. Only as a last resort should you physically jump into the water, especially deep or fast-flowing water, to save someone who is drowning. Such a rescue method can require tremendous strength and strong swimming abilities.

Learn more about pool safety by reading blogs posted at http://wakemedvoices.org/, and also consider investing in personal floatation devices.  Also, Snyder warns, if you own a pool, install a pool alarm, fencing and pool side door locks to keep children out the pool when they are not monitored.

Graham Snyder talks at SECU Daily Planet. Images by Paige Brown.

Graham Snyder talks at SECU Daily Planet. Images by Paige Brown.

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