In almost all movies I have ever seen or books I have ever read where a person is supposedly drowning, there is lots of thrashing around, calling and waving for help, and other panicky behavior, but the truth is completely different from what we’d expect.
In the Fall 2006 issue of On Scene: The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D explain how to recognize the instinctive drowning response:
1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary, or overlaid, function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs. 2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.
Yikes. Makes me glad I’m not a lifeguard or someone who writes books with drowning victims since it would be hard to recognize such stillness as someone in distress. (Makes me even gladder I have a healthy fear of deep water.) Still, if I ever had to write about someone who is drowning, I know how to do write the scene. Hmmm. Maybe a short story someday. After all, I’ve already done the research! Or rather, Francesco Pia did.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.