Signs of drowning

Many people think they know what drowning looks like from what they see on TV: lots of splashing, shouting and waving of arms, but in reality your child can slip under water just metres away from you without making a sound.

Children can often drown because most of us can’t identify the warning signs of someone battling to stay afloat.

According to NSRI statistics, 600 people drown in South Africa each year. Fourteen of the 37 people who drowned during the festive season, from December 1 last year to January 2 this year, were children – almost double the number, that drowned during the same period the year before.

“While the majority of the drownings are attributable to drownings in the sea suspected to be caused by coastal rip-currents, some were from suspected medical causes and others from
fatal drownings in lagoons, swimming pools, rivers, lakes and dams or from accidents around water,” the NSRI said in a statement.

Cousins Fernando Johnson, 6, and Cameron Johnson, 8, drowned while playing near a bridge in Muizenberg on Friday December 30. On the same day, one-year-old Nikolai Skinner tragically fell into the family swimming pool in Brackenfell while his parents were busy packing the car for a holiday.

While rip tides, children being ill-prepared for the water and parents leaving youngsters unattended all play a role in drownings, there is another factor that has perhaps been overlooked by many.

According to an article in the US Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, of the approximately 750 children who will drown each year in America, about 375 of them will do so within 22 metres of a parent or other adult. In 10 percent of those drownings, the adult will watch them do it without having any idea what is happening.

There is a perception that a drowning person will thrash around hysterically, screaming for assistance as he or or she disappears under the water. Unfortunately this is a perception created by Hollywood and television drama series and it’s very different to the instinctive drowning response South African lifeguards are taught to identify.

Indicators of the instinctive drowning response are laid out in the latest Lifesaving South Africa (LSA) Lifeguard Manual:

* Struggles to keep the face above water in an effort to breathe.

* Arms extend to the side, pressing down for support. No kick.

* Body is vertical in the water.

* May struggle at the surface, unable to move forward for between 20 seconds and a minute before submerging.

* This casualty is now a passive drowning casualty and will eventually lose consciousness and stop moving.

Distressed swimmers, on the other hand, show the following signs:

* They can continue breathing and call for help.

* They can still co-ordinate their arms and legs to keep themselves afloat and their face out of the water to breathe. They may also wave one arm to attract attention and call for help.

* Their body position becomes more upright in the water as they become less able to support themselves.

* They make little or no forward progress and need assistance to reach the water’s edge.

* If a distressed swimmer is not rescued, he or she be-
comes an active drowning casualty.