I have read a lot over the years about shallow water blackout, and it seems to be gaining quite a bit of attention in the aquatic community lately.  Recently, at my facility, we had a case of shallow water blackout that fortunately ended with the swimmer making a full recovery and avoiding a trip to the hospital.  I feel that by telling the story, I can highlight the spontaneous nature of the condition.


The event occurred when we had an age group swim team using our pool.  The 14 - 18 year old swimmers were working out as normal.  They are very good swimmers, and strong athletes.  Towards the end of practice, one of the swimmers, a 16 year old male, asked the coach if he could finish early by doing 50 yards underwater.  The coach told the swimmer that that is not what they were doing, and has always discouraged breath-holding exercises.  The swimmer, deciding that he was going to try anyways, began making the swim underwater.  After swimming one length, and attempting to do an underwater turn, the swimmer went hypoxic and lost consciousness. 


We pride ourselves in having alert and adept lifeguards that can act at a moment’s notice, but it must be stressed how difficult it is to see a submerged swimmer when they are swimming in a lane with other swimmers and the water is turbulent.  Upon approximately ten seconds of being submerged, a teammate swimming in the same lane noticed that the swimmer was submerged and unconscious and immediately dove down and retrieved him.  Lifeguards activated the EAP, and while the pool was clearing they and the coach helped pull the swimmer out and began delivering care.  The swimmers breathing was very shallow and rapid, and after 4 - 6 rescue breaths he began to regain consciousness.  The lifeguards followed the EAP and notified the operations staff and open the gate for emergency personal, which arrived within 3 minutes thanks to the fact that we are a university with our own emergency personnel.  The swimmer was disoriented and soon began to regain normal levels of consciousness.  By the time the EMS personnel arrived, the swimmer had completely recovered.  Due to prompt action by his teammates, the coach, and lifeguards, the swimmer was able to avoid a trip to the hospital, as the EMS decided that he did not have water in his lungs, and dry drowning did not appear to be a possibility.  The guards then contacted me, and filled out the necessary paperwork. 


In summation, I could not be prouder of my lifeguards.  The incident seemed to be unavoidable as the swimmer was committed to making the swim underwater, but I have to be happy anytime a submerged unconscious victim makes a full recovery on the scene.  What I would like others to take away from this situation is that shallow water blackout happens quickly and without warning.  Active drowning victims are easy to spot, and I feel that the sudden loss of consciousness of a swimmer is one of the biggest fears of many aquatic professionals, along with spinal injuries. Before the incident, shallow water blackout was something that happened at other facilities to other people.  I had been aware of it, and trained my staff to recognize it, but now it is a reality for us, and we are fortunate that it did not result in serious injury or even death.

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Great article.

It's exactly why we are working so hard to introduce and launch our drowning detection technology, the Wahooo Swim Monitor System (www.WahoooSMS.com).

With Wahooo in place and all swimmers wearing our Swimbands (the bike helmet for swimming), guards are alerted to any prolonged submersion (situations that can go unnoticed until the event escalates into a life-threatening situation).

Wahooo works in both pools and lakes and is an extremely reliable, practical and affordable additional layer of protection to prevent needless and preventable drowning at guarded facilities.

For more on shallow water blackout, please check out our special report, Deathly Shallows, which was featured in the November/December 2011 issue of Aquatics International.

Back in High School I worked with another lifeguard who would tell us he was about to swim 100yds underwater and that he would pass out at the end and just to pull him up. Being highschool kids, we thought it was awesome that he could do and sure enough, everytime, he would pass out about 5yds from the wall and just go limp. We would pull him up, slap him around a bit and he was fine. He went on to be a Navy Seal. 

Now, almost 10 years later, I think back on that quite a bit differently. No bueno. 

We had a simlar incident where I used to work. An age group coach made a poor choice in having his swimmers do a contest of who could go the farthest without taking a breath. One 10 yr. old girl was determined to impress her coach and refused to take a breath. Since she was winning, the coach was watching her closely to ensure she wasn't taking any breaths, so caught it immediately when she went limp and started to sink. He pulled her out and as soon as he got her on deck and opened the airway and gave two breaths, she immediately started breathing. EMS transported her and she  was released from hospital after a few hours.


This young coach was lucky in the lesson he learned, and it helped to convince all of the other young coaches of the seriousness of no breath holding contests. You can tell them, and tell them (we had a no breath holding policy in place when it happened), but unfortunately it often takes something like that to make them understand.

Shallow water blackout is gaining some national attention thanks in part to Dr. Rhonda Milner who lost a son to shallow water blackout. Her website http://shallowwaterblackoutprevention.org/ is a good resource for education and awareness. Dr. Milner and Dr. Tom Griffiths will be speaking about shallow water blackout at the National Drowning Prevention Symposium in March. If you are interested in attending please visit www.ndpa.org  for more details.

I first became interested in lifesaving because as a teen I was resuscitated by my own sister after suffering a shallow water blackout.  I woke up to a line of foam and blood running from my mouth to a nearby drain on the pool deck after they pulled me out.  I don't hesitate to share my own personal experience w/ lifeguard candidates in class to demonstrate that it doesn't matter who you are, how strong of a swimmer you are, etc; it can happen to anyone who follows unsafe practices.

In the UK the website for Shallow Water Blackout has a brilliant video embeded which we promote to Pool Managers http://shallowwaterblackout.org.uk/ it explains how and why SWB occurrs. Our company The Swimming Pool Safety Company www.poolsafetyco.com specializes in Drowning Prevention and Detection Technology - The PoolView Drowning Prevention System and Sensa our Drowning Detection System. More info is available on on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/swimmingpoolsafetycompany


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