State College, PA is a relatively small college town with relatively few pools but we have had a rash of sudden deaths during laps swims lately. In a little over four years we have had four major cardiac arrests in four different pools during lap swims in our little town with three out of four being fatal.
First in 2008, a year before my retirement from Penn State University, a professor died suddenly while swimming his daily mile. Shortly after my retirement from Penn State in 2009, my close friend and colleague at Penn State, Shawn DeRosa, had another male victim die while swimming laps. In both cases lifeguards recovered the victims and removed them from the water before they could submerge and aspirate any water. Around the same time, a local State College dentist died while swimming laps at the State College Area YMCA. Again, this was ruled a death rather than a drowning because no water entered the lungs. Finally, during the past week, Todd Roth's lifeguards rescued and successfully resuscitated a lap swimmer with rescue breathing and AED who experienced a sudden cardiac event at a Centre Region Park and Recreation pool. Thankfully the victim is doing fine.
With all four major medical emergencies, the lifeguards responded so quickly and professionally that none of the victims aspirated any water. This is usually NOT the case. There are several important messages to convey to lifeguards about lap swimmers. NO! LAP SWIMMING IS NOT DANGEROUS! In fact the opposite is true. But too many lifeguards are so fixated on looking for the signs drowning by weak or novice swimmers, that they tend to relax during lap swimming. Older generations like the Baby Boomers swim to stay young and healthy, but many of these individuals are at risk medically. If lifeguards delay at all when a severe sudden cardiac arrest, stroke or seizure occurs to a lap swimmer, and the swimmer swallows water during his/her distress, there is a good chance this good swimmer will be called a "drownee" by the coroner. As an experienced expert witness I can tell you when water is found in the lungs of the victim, regardless of the primary or initial cause of the medical malady in the pool, it is very difficult to defend, even with the best lifeguards on duty. This is not fair, but it is true. So what can we do to prevent negligence when a good swimmer dies of a major medical event during a lap swim?
1. Guard all lap and adult swims carefully; be mindful of all swimmers.
2. Teach your guards that medical emergencies might be more likely than traditional drowning events, particularly with older populations.
3. Be ready by expecting the unexpected.
4. Respond immediately without delay to distress in the water.
5. Your goal should be to get to the victim before he/she submerges or aspirates water.
4. Have an AED and Oxygen close by and be ready to use it.