Montreal·Point of View

'I knew 20 minutes before it happened that I was going to do a rescue': Danger signs from a swim instructor

Don't take your eye off your kids for more than 15 seconds when you are supervising them in the water, and if your kids are under six, put lifejackets on them, counsels swim instructor and lifelong swimmer Karen Sampson.

Put lifejackets on children under 6, and watch them at all times, says Karen Sampson

Karen Sampson warns that you can't take your eye off your kids for more than 15 seconds when supervising them in the water. (Allen McEachern)

A recent summer evening started the way many of our summer evenings do — after dinner, we walked down to the public beach for a swim to cool off and relax at the end of a hot summer day.

It was well past the time that the lifeguards go home for the day and the beach was still full of people. A family, one adult and three kids under the age of five, was in the water near us.

I knew 20 minutes before it happened that I was going to do a rescue. I saw all the risk factors fall into place, so I decided to stay in the water just in case. It's a good thing I did.

I could tell the kids in that family did not know how to swim. They didn't like getting their face wet and had difficulty getting back up when falling in knee-deep water. The parent in the water, with their free arm, was scooping up the older kids from time to time. The other parent was watching the rest of the family from a nearby dock, fully clothed.

Then the family moved outside of the buoy line. Maybe it was my lifeguard instinct, maybe it was my inner momma bear, but something told me to move closer.

Eventually, I peeked around the corner of the dock and saw that one of the children was drowning. The parent in the water was no more than a foot away but had their back turned. The parent on the dock was looking at their child but did not recognize they were in distress.

I walked toward the child and scooped her up. After listening to her cry and scream while held tightly in her parent's arms, I was happy to see that she was fully conscious and breathing fine.

It could have been so much worse. Five more seconds and I would have been doing a submerged victim recovery.

Supervision, lifejackets are key

You cannot take your eye off your kids for more than 15 seconds when you are supervising them in the water. A non-swimmer will not call for help. Their arms don't flail. Often, they go unrecognized or people think they are playing in the water.

They are using all the air they have left to stay alive. Their whole body is under the water, right up to their eyebrows. Even if you are 30 centimetres away from your child, if they are behind you, you will not hear them sink to the bottom of the pool.

If you have children under six, put a life jacket on them as soon as you get to the beach or the pool and do not take it off.

Even if they are building sandcastles.

Even if they have done 250 swimming lessons.

Once a session, Sampson has children do swim lessons with personal flotation devices and practise swimming with their clothes on. (Submitted by Karen Sampson)

Young children do not have the strength or co-ordination or emotional maturity required to swim on their own when they are in an emergency situation. Swimming when you choose to and swimming when you have to are different skill sets.

We are all perfectly imperfect. We all parent the best we can everyday. We all make mistakes. Kids in lifejackets is the safety net for perfectly imperfect humans.

Make sure your CPR certification is up to date. On that Saturday, everything ended fine, but last summer, I was involved in a rescue where we performed CPR on a 24-year-old woman for several minutes after she drowned before she started breathing on her own again.

The brain starts dying after as little as four minutes without oxygen. In the Laurentians, where I live, the average response time for an ambulance is 20 minutes. As citizens, we have to fill that 16-minute gap by doing CPR so lives can be saved.

When I noticed the risk factors for the near-drowning falling into place, I was in the middle of wrangling my four kids to go home. It was my 10th time asking them to "Please come now!"

I'm glad that my kids didn't come when they were asked. Those extra minutes at the beach put us in the right place at the right time to save a life.

According to the 2018 Canadian Drowning Report, 423 people drowned unintentionally in Canadian waters in 2015. Over the last 20 years, the rate of unintentional drowning deaths in Canada has gone down — 2.2 per 100,000 people in the early 1990s vs. 1.3 per 100,000 people between 2011 and 2015. 

About the Author

Karen Sampson is a swimming and fitness instructor who has called Mont-Tremblant, Que., home since 1996. When she is not teaching or wrangling her five kids, you can find her in the lake or on the slopes.

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