Do You Know What Drowning Looks Like?


IF you and your family are planning to spend some of this summer by the sea, by the pool, or perhaps even a river or lake, perhaps you should ask yourself, would you be able to spot someone in trouble in the water, in time to save their life: do you really know what drowning looks like?
Mario Vittone, a writer on maritime safety, tells a story about a former life guard, now a boat captain, who spotted a potentially fatal incident from fifty feet away. The captain jumped off his own boat, and sprinted toward a family swimming between the beach and their anchored boat: he sped past the astonished parents, to save their nine-year old daughter, who had been quietly drowning not ten feet behind her father.
Vittone, whose articles have appeared in many magazines, including Reader’s Digest, said he was not surprised when he heard this story: he knows a thing or two about drowning, having served nineteen years in the US Navy and Coast Guard, and his strongest message is “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning”.
Many of us, who have perhaps unwittingly been coached by TV dramas and cartoon films, when asked to describe a drowning person would probably say they would be thrashing their arms about wildly above their heads and making loud cries of help. But the reality is that a person who is drowning is more likely to remain quiet, unnoticeable, and sink silently.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2007, there were 3,443 fatal unintentional drownings in the US, an average of ten deaths a day, with more than 1 in 5 victims of fatal drowning being children aged 14 years and younger. Plus, for every child that drowns, four others receive emergency care for nonfatal injuries related to submersion.
This is what we commonly assume drowning looks like. However, the actual signs of drowning are very different. Furthermore, says the CDC, many parents have watched their child drown without realizing what was happening. They did not know what the captain who saved the little girl in Vittone’s story was trained to notice and her parents were blissfully unaware of: the signs of Instinctive Drowning Response, a term coined by Dr Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., a water safety expert.
Vittone and Pia wrote about the Instinctive Drowning Response, in the Fall 06 issue of On Scene, the journal of the US Coast Guard Search and Rescue. Pia says it is what people do to avoid suffocating in water: they don’t splash much, they don’t wave, and they don’t yell or call out.