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Heads Above Water

By Scott Hamilton, MD
July 7, 2021
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

In 2017, in this column, I recounted almost drowning in Grand Isle. I had messed up by drinking a beer before going in and swimming against a strong current but got this important thing right: I had a lifeguard. My friend Dayle was out on the party raft I was trying to reach, and he had been a lifeguard and collegiate swimmer. One plaintive cry to Dayle as I pooped out and began to panic, and he was there buoying me up and towing me to the raft.

After falling for the past three years, drowning rates for kids are rising in Louisiana. When COVID hit, families were doing lots of outdoor activities to stay sane, including hitting the water. Most drownings happen in home pools. Often the victims are toddlers who get out of the house to explore, squat by the side of the pool to touch the water, and fall in. Another common scenario is at pool parties, where the adults are distracted by drinks, food, and conversation, and then someone discovers the child at the bottom.

Since my drowning scare, I’ve taken swimming lessons.  I could swim before, but a casual observer might think, “is that guy swimming, or having a seizure?” To upgrade my skills over the winter, I was in the chilly Red’s pool at five a.m. twice weekly, having driven there in the cold darkness, for an hour of coached drills and work-outs. Now I’m a more able swimmer, and still work-out weekly (at a more reasonable hour) to maintain my stamina and technique.

Swimming lessons are one way to prevent child drownings. The best way is to just not have a home pool, instead bringing the kids to places with lifeguards.

These parents had a scare: During the party, adults were milling about, drinking and chatting, when mom noticed their four-year-old boy at the bottom of the pool. Dad jumped in at her scream and pulled him out. He was dripping wet but awake and seemed okay. When he got to us however, the x-ray showed the beginning of lung congestion. We admitted him to the hospital, and he did well. Nightmare averted!

Some parents don’t get so lucky. After dropping for the past three years, drowning rates in Louisiana are rising. Like we said above, most drownings happen at home pools. The toddler slips out of the house and falls in, drowning before anyone’s aware. Another common scenario is the pool party where adults are present, just no one’s watching the kids. Teens usually drown in unguarded waters like bayous or lakes, and often don’t know how to swim. Finally, there’s boating accidents, where boats crash and eject the passengers. If there’s no lifejackets, some kids don’t come up.

The obvious prevention for most drownings is: don’t have a pool! If you must have one, fence it on all four sides, with a gate latch so high toddlers can’t reach. The back door opening to the pool invites disaster. Swimming ability provides only a little protection, as I learned in Grand Isle. However, good swimming lessons, like with the Boy Scouts, also teach water safety; having buddies watching each other, having ropes and throwable flotation devices handy, and best of all, swimming in guarded pools.

On boats or at pool parties, someone should be, as we designated in my college fraternity, “the sober toad.” This person watches the kids and on boats, drives safely and has people wear lifejackets. This keeps everyone’s heads above water.

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