News 4 Lifesaver

Jun 13, 2013 6:09 PM

What a drowning really looks like

TUCSON - There has been six water related accidents this swim season in Pima County. One was fatal.

Drowning is a silent killer and it turns out there are several reasons why.

When a person begins to drown, nature takes over. The reaction is called the Instinctive Drowning Response. It is the body's last instinctive effort to keep a person alive. And actual drownings look much different than what is often seen in the movies.

Francisco A. Pia, PhD., started researching the Instinctive Drowning Response over 40 years ago at Orchard Beach in New York where he was a Lifeguard Instructor.

"Between two and six people would drown each year between Memorial Day and 4th of July weekend," Dr. Pia explains to Kristi's Kids via phone.

For several years, he had staff on hand to film rescues of actual near drownings. After analyzing the films, Dr. Pia discovered a pattern and came up with the concept of the Instinctive Drowning Response.

"The brain realizes very quickly that when your mouth is sinking below and reappearing above the surface of the water, you're not getting enough oxygen in to continue breathing."

Breathing is the primary function of the respiratory system. Speech is secondary.

"So when you're not getting enough air in to breath, you don't have enough air left over to call out, ‘help I'm drowning!'"

Drowning victims cannot wave for help either.

"They will press down on the surface of the water, in attempt to use the surface of the water as a platform, so that they can leverage their mouth above the surface of the water."

That's often mistaken for a doggie paddle especially when it is a child drowning.

There are situations when a swimmer in distress is able to call out for help. While they still need help, that is not a drowning in progress.

Lifeguards are trained to look for this behavior. And once drowning begins, there is very little time to react.

"It can be as little as 20 seconds," says Jodi Layton, a Lifeguard Instructor with YMCA and Pima County. "Generally speaking the statistics are about 20-60 seconds that they can submerge and go underwater."

Dr. Pia and the YMCA emphasize Adult Supervision is essential. But not just at backyard pools. Even when there are lifeguards on duty, parents should be watching their kids all the time.

According to Dr. Pia, these are the characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response:

  • Drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help
  • Their mouths will sink below and reappear above water-but not long enough to get to get sufficient oxygen.
  • They will not be able to wave for help. The body's instinct is to push down on the surface of the water.
  • Drowning patients are vertical in the water with little or no leg movement. And they will remain in the same location, no progressive movement in any direction.
  • Once drowning begins, the patient will submerge in 20-60 seconds.

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