Warning signs of a drowning don't match perceptions

11:40 PM, Jul 4, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If you're the one responsible for keeping children safe in water, you shouldn't rely on your ears to tip you off to a drowning in progress.

Experts say most drownings are quiet incidents and don't match our preconceived notions of victims yelling for help and frantically waving their arms in the water.

"Drowning is silent and people really must watch their children in the water," LeeAnn Mortensen, the injury prevention coordinator at North Memorial Hospital, told KARE.

"There's no screaming or yelling or flailing. And it only takes a second for someone to slip under the surface unnoticed."

North Memorial is part of the Minnesota Water Safety Coalition, which has water safety resources for parents at its website, known asthinkdontsink.org.

Designating one parent to be the "water watcher" for a group of children swimming is one of the ideas parents should consider. Safe Kids USA and Abby's Hope are among groups that offer "Water Watcher" cards and tags.

"If I'm handed the card off I'm watching the kids," Mortensen explained. "I'm not on my phone. I'm not texting. I'm not reading. I'm literally watching every child."

Slipping Away Quietly 

Veteran Twin Cities swimming instructor Jon Foss asked student Jack Dahlgren to demonstrate the dynamics of an actual drowning incident for KARE, something that's not easy for an experienced swimmer.

Foss said children should be taught to look from side to side when they begin encounter trouble, so they can find the shore or side of the pool. 

What they often do instead is to look upward, which then allows water to enter their nostrils. Things can go downhill quickly from there.

"This is what a child would look like in the moment before they drown," Foss told KARE, as Jack tilted his head back and let the water cover most of his face, exhaled and began to sink.

"He'd be struggling very hard to just hold his face just barely above water and in that moment, he would just go under the water."

Foss said it takes a lot of strength and a good supply of air to bob around in the water, yell and scream.  In most cases, the drowning victim has exhausted his supply of air and run out of energy to fight.

As Jack slipped under the surface there was no commotion and virtually no noise beyond the ambient sound of other swimmers nearby at the Foss Swim School pool in Eden Prairie.

"It made no sound. That's the whole point," Foss remarked.

"You have to always watch with your eyes. You have to be vigilant."

Foss noted that in Australia the public safety campaign is more direct, with the slogan "Kids Can Drown Without a Sound."

He maintains that every child and every adult can be taught to swim, but that parents shouldn't have a false sense of security about children in the water simply because they've had lessons.

Cooper's Case

The near drowning of Cooper Whitfield in Lakeville last year was a classic example of how quickly and quietly children can find themselves in peril.

Cooper, who was 4-years-old at the time, sank to the bottom of his neighborhood pool in 30 seconds.  His mother, Christie Whitfield, said she had turned away from him briefly so she could put sunscreen on her infant daughter.

"I turned and saw him on the bottom of the pool and yelled, 'Is that Cooper?' and dove into the water."

Whitfield said she had told Cooper to go to the shallow end of the pool and wait for her. But she later learned that the boy had dove into the pool as soon as she turned away from him to attend to his baby sister.

"There was a raft in the pool and they yelled 'Jump in Cooper! Jump in!' and he missed the raft."

A review of the surveillance video would show that Cooper was only 3 feet away from his mom when he went under, but she didn't hear a thing out of the ordinary.

"I did not hear him cry. I did not hear any splashing other than normal playing in the pool," Whitfield recalls.

Other adults and children in the pool saw Cooper under the water, but mistakenly thought he was swimming.

When Christie brought her son back to the surface his body was limp and his face had turned blue even though he was under the water for only two to three minutes.

Leah Mickschl, another parent who was at the pool with her children, revived Cooper using CPR.

"He started to throw up and his eyes opened," Mickschl recalled.

"He became alert and started to cry. And it was a beautiful cry!"

Mickschl, a registered nurse at Children's Hospital in St. Paul, was also surprised to learn how quietly Cooper's accident unfolded.

"There was no splashing, no crying out for help," she said.

"There was no struggle. It was very silent."

The boy went to the Children's Hospital Emergency Room and has made a full recovery.  The doctors estimated Cooper had been underwater at least two minutes, but was helped by the fact that his throat closed before his lungs could fill with water.

Whitfield counts her blessings, but continues to replay the events of that day in her mind.

"Two minutes is two minutes. You can't take your eyes off your children for a second."

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)