children at a poolby James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

I worked as a lifeguard when I was a teen. Great job, usually. The Fourth of July was always an exception—so crowded. There was no way to keep up with everyone in the water.

I basically hoped (prayed) that if someone started drowning, a person close by would shout, really loudly, above all the other shouting. Because, contrary to popular belief, a drowning victim usually doesn’t throw up their hands and shout, “Help, I’m drowning!” Usually they don’t shout anything. They’re doing all they can to stay afloat and gasp for breath. Sure, they may be splashing like crazy. But everyone was splashing like crazy.

Then there are those who just silently go under. Kind of sink like a rock. I had one do that on me while I was teaching swimming lessons. I’m taking care of the other kids. Ten seconds later I see this one who’s climbed out of the pool and is at the deep end jumping off the diving board. Never a sound, not even much of a splash; he just sunk. I pulled him up and he was smiling, like that’s the way he planned it. I didn’t take my eyes off him again.

Every year, over 3,000 people in the U.S. die from drowning, all ages. They drown in backyard pools, participating in public recreation, during floods, anywhere there’s water. At least that many end up in the emergency room having almost drowned.


How to Prevent Someone (Including Yourself) From Drowning

  1. Take a class and learn to swim well. Same for your children.
  2. If you’re in a boat, wear a life preserver. Eighty-eight percent of people who drown aren’t wearing one.
  3. Don’t drink alcohol if you’re swimming or driving a boat. Seventy percent who drown are drinking.
  4. Never swim alone.
  5. Never depend on toy floatation devices for safety. Make sure your children know this.
  6. Always supervise children. Even then, many who drown have only been only out of their parents’ sight for a few minutes.

It goes back to teaching them to swim as soon as possible.


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What Do You Do If You See Someone Drowning?

If it’s a child: If you can swim, jump in and pull them up like I did.

But, if the person is a conscious adult, that’s not a good idea. Even if you’re a great swimmer they’re likely to take you under with them. How many times have I read of two people drowning in a lake, one apparently trying to save the other? I don’t think I’ve ever read of a good outcome. The problem is the drowning victim is in a panic mode. They’ll do anything to keep their head above water, including jumping on you to buoy them up. They grab you by the neck, by the arms, whatever they can hold on to. You sink, and they sink with you. So …

If it’s a conscious adult: Instead of jumping in, call for help. If there are lifeguards, let them do their job. If it’s only you, find a pole, stick, oar, or rope. Throw it and urge them to grab on. If they’re too far out, paddle out in a boat, or swim just close enough to throw it to them. Be sure to have on your life preserver, and be sure to stay far enough away that they can’t reach you.

If it’s an unconscious adult: Turn them over, put your arm around one side of their neck, across their chest, and under the opposite arm. Or just grab them by the hair. The sooner you can pull them in the better. If you’re not sure what happened and it’s possible they could have injured their neck or head, be sure to keep their neck as stable as possible, in the water and on the land.

Drowning First-Aid for an Unconscious Victim

If you have on a life preserver, it’s possible you can begin mouth-to-mouth breathing in the water. Either way, when you get them on solid ground:

  1. If they have water in their mouth, turn them on their side, or lift them enough to let the water drain. (Here’s my video that shows how to turn someone with a possible neck injury; instructions for that start at about 2:25.)
  2. Start CPR. Don’t waste time trying to get more water out of the lungs or stomach. Even if it’s there, it won’t come easily, and you need to be giving them oxygen and circulation.

I’ll explain more about how to do CPR in my next post.

What about you? Do you have any experiences to relate?

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Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.