Big gulp: Swim smart to avoid drowning

Ariel, the Little Mermaid, would probably win every Olympic gold medal in swimming. She’d blow Michael Phelps out of the water. Oh, wait, that tail might disqualify her from competition.

My cousin snorkeled for the first time in his life this year. He loved it in the shallow waters of the beach. So he decided to go on a boat and snorkel in deeper waters. In the ocean, he was having the time of his life– until he gulped water and panicked. He didn’t realize the boat crew deflated his overly inflated life preserver before he jumped in. Um, also he didn’t know how to swim. So he sank like the Titanic.

What can be done to prevent drowning?

Drowning is the number-one cause of injury-related death in children and the number-two cause of accidental death in folks under the age of 45. Half a million people drown every year worldwide, and many more almost drown.

Drowning occurs more where beaches and pools are easily accessible. For children under the age of five, 7 percent of drowning deaths are thought to be from neglect or child abuse. I remember a little girl at a public pool who would jump in the pool, swim under water, and wait for her mother to take her out. Because mom was a Chatty-Cathy (and probably drinking a margarita), one day she forgot about her submerged daughter until someone yelled, “Your baby is drowning!” Cough-cough, hack-hack; a lot of crying, and thankfully the girl was okay.

So you can see how negligence can cause small children to drown in just a tub.

Speaking of margaritas, half the number of adults who drown were under the influence alcohol and drugs. Drinking while boating can turn any boat into the SS Minnow. (“Gilligan, tell the drunk skipper he hit another boat, and Ginger is both sloshed and overboard!”)

Never swim alone. You can break your neck diving into shallow waters. A riptide can carry you out to sea.

As with my cousin who almost drowned while snorkeling, people who overestimate their swimming abilities (or can’t swim) are more at risk. A fellow snorkeler tried to rescue my cousin but abandoned efforts when my panicking cousin almost drowned him in the process. So the boat crew was notified, and thankfully these trained people rescued him.

Rescue and immediate resuscitation improve chances of survival and limit potential brain damage. Once a person is in “safe waters” (i.e. the boat, on shore, dry land) vital signs are checked and CPR is given if necessary, while taking appropriate measures if the neck is broken. Wet clothes should be removed to reduce hypothermia.

Most complications of a near-drowning occur within seven hours, such as fluid buildup in the lungs and breathing problems. If the brain swells, symptoms ranging from confusion to seizures can occur. Heart arrhythmias can lower blood pressure or stop the heart.

A secure fence and gating should be in place around any swimming pool. Adult supervision is vital to protect children. My parents made me take swimming lessons at an early age (as should everyone), and I still wear a personal floatation device when out at sea.

I know Magnum PI swam in the Hawaiian ocean by himself, but it isn’t a good idea to be in the water alone. Don’t dive in shallow waters (and that isn’t a metaphor about our stock market). Avoid drugs and alcohol. (Isn’t that how a possibly intoxicated 43-year-old Natalie Wood drowned when she went out in the dinghy?)

We all can’t be Ariel. Everyone should take precautions around water.
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he’s a respected physician with an interesting website, Email him with your questions.