After spending so much time indoors, I found myself looking forward to summer more than usual. I wanted to make a list of things that could get my family outside, because while we found the silver lining of social distancing, we were ready to distance ourselves from the house in anyway possible. Most notable on my list were all the locations of places to swim- waterfalls, rivers, pools, water parks, you name it! Living in a state where the heat gets incredibly intense means that any place that has water seems like a great choice for me and my family.
I grew up in Washington State, where water was everywhere (not just falling from the sky) and my family spent a lot of time in and around it. We went swimming, fishing, floated the river and had a boat that allowed for us to do countless water sports on the local lakes. It was an incredible experience to have so many opportunities like that as a child and were honestly some of my fondest childhood memories. All these things are factors as well in wanting to make new memories with my own little family in and around water.
It wouldn’t make sense then for me to then tell you (as a reader) that being around the water with my son is one of my biggest points of anxiety as a mom. To understand exactly why that is, I need to share a little bit of my background with you. For over 15 years of my life I’ve been a search and rescue volunteer within two different states. While I’ve had a lot of good experiences of finding people safe and sound, unfortunately that isn’t always the case. Before becoming a mom, search and rescue had a different feeling for me. I would go out onto a mission, and while I always had compassion, none of what I saw ever really hit home in a personal way until I held my son for the first time in my arms.
As a new mom, I did what a lot of new moms did by being over-the-top protective. I would picture in my head irrational thoughts of things that could go wrong and harm my son. I didn’t trust anyone, or anything, around him and it was all incredibly stressful for everyone involved. Eventually, I learned that things weren’t always so gloom and doom and began to relax a bit. I kept a watchful eye on my son, but I didn’t hover over him, or fuss at everything little thing. I gave him space to learn, grown and make mistakes that didn’t have lasting negative consequences. I was able to find that balance between being a helicopter mom and a laid back one. Life was good and I thought I had everything under control until one trip with my family to the water park.
After an afternoon of waiting in long lines for a 30-60 second water ride, my family was ready to relax in the lazy river for a bit. We each had our own tube in the river and were enjoying ourselves until we came across a legit human traffic jam at the top of one of the drop-offs. A bunch of teens had decided to daisy chain their arms together in an attempt to all go down at the exact same time. My family ended up separated in the mass of tubes and I saw my son (age 7 at the time) for just a brief moment before he went down the drop-off well ahead of my husband and me. For reasons I couldn’t describe in the moment, all at once I felt my heart start to race and my mind go into that “new-mom-panic mode” that I hadn’t felt in years. I pushed, and I mean pushed, my way past the teens like a red rover champion to reach my son. I caught up with his tube and felt a huge wave of relief wash over me seeing that he was safe and sound.
For the rest of the day I felt on edge. While my son was never really at any major risk, I still couldn’t get over my reaction in the moment. I also started to notice something I hadn’t before - kids around water created a very real level of stress for me. It didn’t even have to be my own child, because without even realizing it I found myself keeping a watchful eye on everyone else’s children too. Seeing very small children swim off by themselves (without anyone with them) = stress. Watching children jump into rivers without an adult watching = stress. Not to come off as parent shaming here, but even watching parents staring at their phones for long amounts of time was also causing me stress. I just didn’t really understand why, or how I hadn’t really noticed it before, until the car ride home.
As I mentioned above, I’ve spent years volunteering in search and rescue units. Some of the teams I’ve served on has been flood and swift water rescue. While I’ve had a lot of training around water as a result, I’ve seen a lot of things over the years that has greatly affected me. Once I became a mom, those calls for missing children suddenly felt different. The pain, anger and fear those parents felt touched me on a very deep level because no parents should ever have to experience not knowing where their child is. They shouldn’t have to be told that we’ve recovered their child’s body. Anytime I would get a call to search for a child around water, it brought me sadness because there is something about water that’s just different than being in the woods or lost in a city suburb. Every call you want to find them safe and see their parents faces light up when their child is returned back into their arms. It’s what any rescuer wants to have happen, but it’s just not always the case and even writing this now it brings tears to my eyes to think about those parent’s who didn’t get to experience that joy.
I cannot talk about individuals, or cases, in any detail here for privacy reasons. What I can talk about is what I’ve seen/know in a general sense in hopes of helping other parents. The first thing I want to talk about is drowning victims don’t always look like they’re drowning. Contrary to what Hollywood likes to show us in movies, and television shows, people who are drowning can’t always make a noise (or splash water) to alert others. In fact, it’s actually very rare that they can call for help at all. Sometimes they’re just under the surface struggling to breach the water to the point where it looks like they’re just swimming below it. Sometimes they can only get their head above water for a moment until they fall below it again. Other times they could be unconscious because they hit their heads, or suffered from a medical condition, which went unnoticed by those around them. This helps to explain why the CDC states that almost 10 people die everyday from drowning (1 in 5 are 14 years of age or younger.) From 2014-2015 there were over 3,300 drowning victims in the United States from non-boating related accidents. Many were children in swimming pools, making drowning childhood deaths second only to motor vehicle accidents (children ages 1-14.)
Second, I would like to talk about time. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) it only takes 60 seconds for an adult to drown. A child can drown in as little as 20 seconds. Time can also be seen in distractions we have as parents in our day-to-day lives. A 2018 T-Mobile study showed that adults spend on average of 3 hours and 48 minutes a day on their phone. Just how much time we spend on average each time we open our phones is much harder data to find, but to split almost 4 (or more) hours up during the day and you could bet it’s probably longer than 60-20 seconds. Now, I am not looking to shame any parent at all (as I stated above). I completely understand that we need to unwind and relax, but I really want to drive this point home to all of you. For almost every drowning case I’ve been on (involving a child) the parents mentioned time.
They weren’t gone that long.
They were just looking down for a moment.
They just had to grab something really quick.
I can’t shame any of this, because I can look back and see times where I could have been the one making those very statements and it terrifies me. We’re human and it happens. It truly does happen, and I will never judge any parent because events can unfold so quickly (once again, time.) All we can do is our best to mitigate the risks of time and be aware of situations where the risks are higher- like being in/around water.
Lastly, I would like to talk about education. There are plenty of resources available online to show you examples of how to identify a drowning victim. Though, I must warn you there are also many real-life examples used for teaching aids as well. I’ve seen several of them personally for my training, and they’re incredibly difficult to watch. A second source of education is taking the time to certify on first aid/CPR. The American Red Cross, the National CPR Foundation, and many local community colleges offer classes you can take for a very reasonable price. If you’ve already had the training once, it’s always a good idea to take an annual refresher (I take one every year.) Teaching children how to swim, or having them take lessons so they can be stronger swimmers, is also invaluable. Parents can place a lot on flotation devices, but it's important to realize that vests and arm floats don't prevent drowning. Education is priceless, and education can save lives, but we must carve out the time to make it a priority to ensure it’s there if we ever must use it.
While I am not by any means a medical expert, nor speaking on behalf of any organization, I truly hope that my personal accounts (and the statistics shared) can help to save a life. As parents, we are all only human and mistakes happen daily in our lives. There is no need to be so quick to shame anyone because a snapshot moment in your life just so happened to turn into one of the worst ones. The best any of us can really do, to help prevent this from happening to our own children (and others), is to educate ourselves, be mindful of the situation, and take the time to share resources/stories. Sharing stories is also a great way to heal as well. It’s what I do to help me cope with some of the things I’ve seen over the years and it gives me hope that I can save a life. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.