PSAdvisory: Why Rescuers Die While Drowning Victims Survive

It only takes a couple of inches of water to drown someone.  Water wings are a poor babysitter.

There are many terrible examples of a person coming to the rescue of a drowning victim only to drown themselves. It’s so common that there’s a name for it — aquatic victim instead of rescuer syndrome, or AVIR syndrome. But there are many reasons rescuers can drown while many of the people they rescue survive.

Source: Why Rescuers Die While Drowning Victims Survive

Why do people die trying to rescue people? No training, coupled with years of exposure to practices that are down right false when it comes to life saving.  If you are not trained, do not attempt a rescue.

There are four levels of swimmer in this sort of analysis:

  1. Active Swimmer: Making good progress through the water, body horizontal good breath control.
  2. Distressed Swimmer: progress slows, still has breath control, body position begins to dip from the horizontal.  Important: can still shout for help
  3. Active Drowning: Body position nearly vertical, head back, no thrust from arm motion. All energy expended goes to keeping the head out of water. Arms move up and down at the sides (no typical “swimming stroke motion”).  Important: no breath control
  4. Passive Drowning: unmoving floating or sitting on the bottom, unconscious.

Active drowning victims have no breath control.  Since they have no breath control, they also make very little noise – they can not shout for help.  They are 100% focused on living at all costs. They are in what is called “The Instinctive Drowning Response”. Meaning you float, and they don’t – they will lunge, grab, and otherwise crawl on/over you to get out of the water. This is why you approach from the back, out of eye sight and grab people, or barring that, fix their attention and then dive around them and grab them.  To reiterate: Never approach an active drowning victim from the front – they will kill you.

Are you a swimming on blood thinners?  I got pulled from the water in a local Sprint distance triathlon a little over 6 months ago.  It was windy, and the lake is large so there was no protection – to date, that was the roughest fresh water I’ve swam in.  My arms felt like lead, but I’d experienced shoulder soreness that I could push through before so I kept going.  I was having difficulty catching my breath 20-30 meters before the first bouy, and it got bad enough started alternating rolling onto my back.  It didn’t improve, and medical staff in a boat called out to me.  I got to the boat, still couldn’t breath well so I got into the boat.  This was where the fun began…

Once in the boat and out of the water, I remember still having issues breathing but feeling phelgmy.  Like when you have a chest cold, needing to hawk up…  So I did, and spat over the side of the boat.  Immediately the crew in the zodiac said they were taking me to the hospital.  It wasn’t until I got to shore that I saw that I was continually spitting up blood.  Automatic ambulance ride…

My INR was tested at the hospital – it was 2, maybe a little above.  What the doctor surmised was the exertion combined with being a “bleeder” (meaning, being on blood thinner) led to bleeding into the lungs at the alveoli.  It happens to normal people, but with the decreased clotting those of us on blood thinner are more prone to something like this happening.   So I was quickly cleared, and spent the next couple of days still coughing up the remaining blood and occasional clot.  No one said anything, but I’d set that if I was still coughing clots on the third day I’d seek a medical  opinion in case there wasn’t enough healing occurring.  I was fine on the third day.

I swam open water two days later, with a whistle and a notion to swim very carefully.  It was fine, and with time I’ve gotten better.  I’ve also found swimming next to fast people in the pool who create a lot of wake can be beneficial.  Though I hate getting a mouth full of water as I’m trying to breathe, the repeated experience allowed me to get over the fear and anxiety so I can recover in the water without loosing my swim stroke.  You don’t improve if you ignore the issue, but be careful and gradual.