What drowning looks like, how to prevent it
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org July 9, 2013 12:31PM
Bob Pratt demonstraties surf rescue techniques. | Supplied photo
Find out what drowning looks like and learn some safety tips at southtownstar.com
Because of water ...
A family mourns for a 3-year-old who drowned Sunday in a pool in Homer Glen.
A Chicago woman bravely shares her story of how she was rescued last summer off the shores of Lake Michigan while her boyfriend drowned.
A college student from Burbank vows to never again ride a Jet Ski after a broken leg suffered off the Indiana Dunes nearly led to hypothermia.
And a Matteson man works diligently to spare others the terror he experienced when he nearly drowned in 2010.
These are the faces of drowning, the stories of those who have been deeply touched by the water’s dark side — all frightening, some amazing. They are what compels us today to do our part to increase respect and understanding for Earth’s most precious resource.
Water is the very thing we purposely seek out for relief, pleasure and serenity, particularly in summer. But along with wonder and comfort, water can bring devastation and death. And it can do so quietly and unsuspectingly because, officials say, drowning rarely looks like drowning.
On Sunday, a preschool-age boy in Homer Glen drowned in a backyard pool. His death was ruled accidental, but water safety officials warn such accidents are all too common.
“Things can happen very quickly in a pool,” said Mary Hartnett, assistant manager of the Park Forest Aqua Center, where constant watching has earned them a perfect safety record.
As tragic as it is to hear about a child wandering into an empty pool, perhaps drawn to pool toys or the allure of the sun’s sparkle on the surface of the water, Hartnett said even in a pool filled with people, a person can drown before anyone realizes he is in distress.
“We’re taught that it only takes 30 seconds for someone to drown,” she said. Center lifeguards, trained by the well-known organization Ellis and Associates, follow a 10/20 protection rule.
“You have 10 seconds to witness a struggle and 20 seconds to rescue that person,” she said.
Hartnett helped save two children’s lives before she decided to become a certified lifeguard. A few summers ago, she was working the front desk and helping to clean up around the community pool when she spied a small boy drowning in 3.6 feet of water. She quickly pulled him to safety. A short time later, she saw another child, this one wearing a life jacket and a flotation device, go face forward into the water. She and a lifeguard reacted immediately.
Drowning, she said, is rarely the way it has been portrayed in Hollywood, with a victim bouncing up and down and screaming for help. Most victims have their heads back, their arms dog paddling, as if climbing a ladder, and their legs motionless. Most cannot yell for help. They are in survival mode.
“Their eyes are usually wide open,” Hartnett added, the pure panic overtaking them.
David Benjamin, of Matteson, knows that feeling and he knows that look. He almost drowned in 2010 after he got caught in a rip current while surfing on Lake Michigan.
“I realized I was exhibiting all the signs of drowning,” he said. “I was facing shore, my mouth was at water level, I was climbing the ladder and starting to hyperventilate.”
That’s when he decided to stop fighting. Instead, he opted to float. That decision saved his strength and likely saved his life.
Today, Benjamin is executive director of The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness about water safety.
There were 74 drownings on the Great Lakes in 2010. Last year, there were 101. So far this year the number is 26, with eight of those occurring in Lake Michigan. That’s lower than usual likely because the cool spring kept people out of the water longer, Benjamin said.
In addition to educating safety personnel and the public about rip, structural and wind currents on Lake Michigan, Benjamin is spreading the word about how to survive them.
“Flip, float and follow,” he said. Flipping onto your back keeps your face above water. Floating helps to conserve energy and keep you calm. Following, as opposed to fighting, a current will buy you precious time to be rescued.
Benjamin said survival is a race against the clock. A distressed swimmer can become a drowning person within 45 seconds, he said.
A person submerged for two minutes has a 92 percent chance of recovery. After 10 minutes, that rate drops to 14 percent.
He recommends swimmers use the buddy system and that parents employ hands-on touch supervision for children. If a child goes missing, he said, check the water first.
If you’re at the beach, you must rely heavily on the people around you if you get into trouble. Choose beaches that have lifeguards but understand that by the time a lifeguard can spot the trouble, get to the victim and then pull him to shore and call for help, valuable time is lost, he said.
“It’s the general consensus among first responders that when they get called to a possible drowning on Lake Michigan, they are mentally prepared for body recovery,” he said. Many first responders, he said, are not even allowed to enter the water.
Muscles are no match
Evelyn Hernandez now shares her story at some of Benjamin’s safety workshops, even though the pain is still raw, the fear still front and center.
It was a 95-degree day when Hernandez, a New York transplant, and her boyfriend, visiting from their home state, decided to spend the day at Beverly Shores, Ind., beach last June.
“We stopped at Kmart and bought an umbrella for shade. Then we saw this inflatable raft and thought, ‘What a great way to watch the sunset,’ ” she said. “We never intended to leave the shallow water.”
There were lots of people in the water that day. At about 2:30 that afternoon, her boyfriend, Leonel Dominguez, suggested they give the raft a try.
“We were both good swimmers. Leonel was in great shape, very fit, very muscular,” she said.
They were floating on the raft, she said, when the wind suddenly shifted and they realized they were being pulled farther out than they wanted to be. Within minutes, they were a good quarter-mile out. They started paddling in.
“The wind just kept pulling us,” she said. So Leonel made the fatal decision to try to swim the raft in. He jumped in the water and immediately realized his mistake.
“It was so cold that he said he needed to get back on the raft,” Hernandez said.
Before she could warn him that the raft would capsize, it flipped. The wind caught it and cartwheeled it farther out onto the lake.
For a short time, they both tried desperately to swim back to shore.
“I was getting so tired. I started praying to God,” she said. “Finally, I knew what was going to happen. I gave myself to God.”
She had come to terms with the belief that she was going to drown. Still, she let out one last, weak cry for help.
A voice replied, telling her to hang on.
Nick Dominguez (no relation to Leonel) had recently graduated from the Naval Academy. He was walking on the beach with his mom that day when he spotted a couple who appeared to be in trouble.
Nick Dominguez was able to get Hernandez safely to shore. But when he went back in for Leonel, the 32-year-old was gone.
It took six days for Leonel’s body to resurface.
“If we had been wearing life jackets, that would have bought us another hour,” Hernandez said. “Turns out, we didn’t even have minutes.”
Today, Hernandez tells her story because “I want people to know that it’s not just kids who don’t know how to swim who can get caught up in these currents and drown,” she said. “Even people who are in great shape, people who are professionals, can have this happen to them.”
Know how to get back
Monika Malek says people don’t realize how dangerous the water can be.
The DePaul University student has been Jet Skiing for years. But an accident two weeks ago has made her vow to never ride one again.
Malek, 21, came down hard on the ski and broke both her tibia and fibula. A friend who was with her was unable to get her back on the ski so they could head to shore.
“I was just floating and freezing,” she said. “Every time a wave came past or I shivered, my leg hurt more.”
Finally, another skier who was also a firefighter/paramedic came to help. He held on to Malek and to a rope while her friend slowly tugged them to shore.
After surgery at Christ Medical Center, Malek is home in Burbank awaiting a long summer of recovery.
“Anything can be dangerous,” she said. “You have to be prepared for that, for when things go wrong.”
You don’t have to be on a lake or in a pool to experience the power of water.
“Oft times, it is less suspicious bodies of water and less suspicious circumstances that can lead to injury or death,” said Dr. Mark Butterly, director of pediatric residency at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn.
While U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that adolescents are more likely to suffer injury in fresh water, bathtubs are the most common place for such occurrences for children age 2 and under.
The CDC reports that approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning every day, and two of those 10 deaths involve a child age 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional, trauma-related death in the United Sates.
A near drowning can be devastating as well, Butterly said.
When the brain is deprived of oxygen, the physical and cognitive damage can be permanent, he said, resulting in lifelong breathing and digestive issues, among other things.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security simply because a pool is shallow or because the bathtub only has a few inches of water in it. Children can drown in a few inches of water, he said.
Among the more tragic situations hospital staff see are children who tumbled into a bucket of solvent left unattended in a basement or garage.
“These could have been prevented by simply draining the standing water,” he said.
Butterly recommends all parents know CPR, although he acknowledges the vast majority do not.
Parents need to be aware of the dangers and of the ways to provide assistance if something goes wrong, he said.
“This is the time of year for drownings and near-drowning episodes,” he said. “No area is excluded from this. And people need to be aware of that.”