"I'll never forget it, though it must have been 40 years ago," parent Scott Shepherd told me. "I was at the lake, swimming with some friends and their small children. There was a rather steep drop off at the dam, and I was struggling up the bank when I looked down and saw a child six inches underwater. He was just staring at me. Everyone else was at least 20 feet away — if I hadn't seen this child, no one would have." Shepherd intervened and saved the child's life, but each year in the U.S., many children aren't seen until it's too late.
Shepherd's story makes my stomach drop, because I can almost feel the horror of losing sight of my child in the water. It's why I have three locks, a padlock and an alarm on the gate that leads to my backyard pool. But even with the precautions that most parents take, accidental drowning claims far too many children each summer. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 800 children under 14 die each year from drowning, and an additional 2,000 are treated in emergency rooms for close calls. Most of these children are under the age of 4.
I caught up with Dr. James Hubbard, who is a family doctor and survival expert keen on prepping parents for what to do when help is not on the way. He shared his insights on how parents can prevent a drowning tragedy.
First of all, Hubbard emphasizes that most drowning incidents are like the close call witnessed by Scott Shepherd. "They're quiet, no yelling and no splashing," he explains. "Unfortunately, the first clue many people have is a child floating face down." Since drowning is stealthier than many assume, Hubbard states that the best prevention is to never, ever let your child out of your sight, even for a second. "Even if your child can swim, he might not be able to swim well enough. Or, if he goes under, he might panic and forget how to swim."
Parents also need to create several layers of protection, in addition to direct supervision. "Teach your child to swim as early as possible," Hubbard says. "If you have a swimming pool, make sure it's completely surrounded by high fencing or barriers that are as childproof as possible." Also, consider adding alarms to your back door and gate, or a pediatric pool alarm that sounds if anything heavier than 18 pounds falls into the pool.
If the lake is more your scene, make sure your children always wear a life preserver. "Eighty-eight percent of people who drown aren't wearing one," explains Hubbard. Also, you should never count on toy flotation devices for safety, because they're not designed to keep a drowning child afloat.
Even if you're prepared, water is dangerous and things sometimes go wrong. So, what should you do if you notice your child is flailing or sinking? "Immediately go in and get your child out," says Hubbard. "If you're not a good swimmer, throw your child a flotation device, or use one to go in after him."
Once your child is out of the water, make sure he is responding and breathing. If he's not, Hubbard emphasizes that you must immediately start CPR and call 911. "Don't take more than a few seconds trying to clear the airway. Anything more is a waste of time."
Finally, if you pull your child from the pool and he's breathing and responding, you still need to call your physician for a complete workup to make sure there's no water remaining in his lungs.
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