Please email us your Shallow Water Blackout survivor stories at email@example.com! Your survivor stories can be very impactful in the prevention of these deadly occurrences by emphasizing the lack of warning. Shallow water blackouts can happen to anybody, even the most physically fit!
by Amanda Gonzales
It was a hot August day in Key West, Florida. We were in the pool swimming around, enjoying the live band.
We decided to take one last trip that summer and Key West seemed to be the perfect spot. It was a super hot weekend. We had been swimming all summer. Hopping into the pool was nothing new. Salena, 14 at the time, was competing with her father (Jeremiah) as they had all summer long. No matter what pool they were swimming in they competed to see who could swim underwater back and forth the most. She had gotten really strong and took every moment when not competing to try to hold her breath a little bit longer. She had just proven a few nights before that she could hold her breath for just a little over three minutes. So here’s how it worked; everyone who wanted to compete could. The rules were simple – swim back and forth as many times as you could and you earned bragging rights that day or until someone else beat you. To push the competition to the next level Jeremiah decided it would be a good idea to hyperventilate before his turn and that would give him an edge on everyone else. Salena was soon to follow suit.
This hot day in Key West wasn’t much different than the others that summer. The only real difference was the only ones who wanted to play this day were Salena and Jeremiah. It wasn’t a very big pool but it was full of people. So the competition began. Jeremiah went, Salena went immediately after Jeremiah, and so on and so forth. This went on for a good bit without much rest in between.
We had a long ride home and still had to pack our room, and the other children were done swimming for the day. I told Jeremiah we should get going. He stated Salena wanted to go one more time. That was fine, it gave me time to gather the rest of the kids. I was on the side of the pool gathering everyone’s goggles when Jeremiah turned and tapped me and said look at this. I no longer had my goggles on and what he was pointing to was under the water. I ignored him. He then again, more persistent this time said to look. Frustrated, I put my goggles on and looked under the water. I came up and said “what is she doing?” Jeremiah, replied “she looks like she is dancing,” I immediately started swimming to Salena. It was only a short distance from where I started but it felt like slow motion. I knew something was wrong. She was thrashing with her fist clenched and her goggles we suctioned to her face so tightly and her eyes were closed. I signaled to Jeremiah who was right behind me and we began to pull her to the side of the pool. The pool was 5.5 feet deep. Since we are not tall people that changed the game a bit. We struggled to get her up. I jumped out of the pool and began to pull as Jeremiah pushed with each time. She slipped from us. I screamed for help and a gentleman came over and helped push her up. We dragged her a few feet from the edge of the pool. She was foaming at the mouth, her lips were purple and she was shaking. She was not breathing. I was able to get a guy to call 911 for us as Jeremiah started performing CPR. I then turned and made sure the other children were out of the pool. I stood and watched my husband and another woman perform CPR on her as she lay there lifeless. After a few minutes she took a breath. They sat her up and as I sat in front of her she stared at me with confusion, as a child does who is sleep walking and doesn’t know how they got to the kitchen. I asked her a few questions, and got blank stares in return. She then started gasping for air and crying that she couldn’t breath. Jeremiah was behind her, I and the woman who helped with CPR were in front of her. Salena started to get angry that we were so close to her and started shouting to get off of her. She was beginning to panic. The woman and I looked at each other and said “we can’t let her get up!” Salena then started to scoot closer to the edge of the pool and we all began to pull her back. She was dazed and confused and started to express how sick to her stomach she was feeling. She began to dry heave. The man who called 911 graciously gave her his chair. Moments later the paramedics came and hooked her to some oxygen and hooked her to the gurney. The paramedic asked some questions and knew right away what had happened. She told us that she’d had a Shallow Water Blackout. She explained a little to us what that meant. Then we headed off to the ER.
Jeremiah later said he remembers her swimming her last lap and two ladies had walked in front of her. It appeared as if Salena come up for a breath and then went back under the water, which was typical for her to do. When she didn’t come back up is when he then went under to see what she was doing and that’s when he came up and wanted me to look at her.
Salena says, she remembers getting to her last lap and knew she was about to win but had to stop for the ladies and that’s the last thing she remembers before we were all surrounding her and asking her questions.
In the ER she didn’t fully understand what had happened to get her there. I had to tell her that she blacked out under the water.
We later learned that the hyperventilation was a huge contributing factor in this. Her brain wasn’t able to regulate her CO2 levels properly.
July 10, 2013 – League City, Texas
While visiting her aunt and uncle in League City, Texas; Katie, a 24 year old excellent swimmer, drowned in their backyard pool. Her uncle performed CPR until an ambulance arrived. When the paramedics arrived she still had no pulse. The paramedics were eventually able to get a pulse, but she did not regain consciousness. They transported her to a local hospital where she crashed multiple times in the emergency room. Katie was on life support in a medically induced coma for 15 days. A ventilator breathed for her, and dialysis filtered her blood since her kidneys had completely shut down. Due to going an extended period of time without oxygen, Katie is now recovering from a traumatic brain injury as well as damage to her heart, lungs, and kidneys.
After 5 weeks in the hospital she was able to go home. Since then, much of her time has been taken up with doctor’s appointments, physical, occupational and speech therapy. Considering that during the first 15 days after the accident the doctors did not give the family much hope, Katie is making an amazing recovery! She is off dialysis and while her organs are still damaged, it is only moderate damage compared to the critical condition they were in after the accident. At 8 months out, she is walking and talking and hoping that the doctors might let her start driving soon. She is still working to improve her memory and cognitive skills as well as her handwriting. The doctors tell us that we need to give her at least a year to recover.
Katie grew up with a pool in her backyard, so she was a strong swimmer. Coming from a competitive family, there were a lot of holding your breath and who could swim the furthest underwater competitions. At the time of the accident, Katie had been holding her breath underwater to see if she could increase her time. Since everyone else had gone inside, no one knew why she drowned. After hearing that she had been holding her breath multiple times in the pool, the emergency room doctor is the one who told the family that he believed she had a shallow water blackout. Sadly, Katie and her family’s lack of knowledge about the dangers of holding your breath underwater led to her tragic accident.
We now try to spread the word to anyone who will listen about the dangers of holding your breath underwater. Katie continues her recovery at home in Oklahoma.
Summer 2010- Sea Island, Georgia
Cason Milner and his brother, Whitner, were competing with each other by swimming the length of the pool while holding their breath. Whitner could hold his breath for over 3 minutes, but his little brother did not want his older brother to beat him. Whitner easily did the 2 lengths and Cason followed. However, when Cason got out of the pool he was blue with purple lips, and he felt totally fine not realizing his hypoxia. Little did Cason know that he was seconds away from blacking out. Unfortunately, Whitner lost his life the very next Spring during breath-holding exercises. Had there been more awareness and education about Shallow Water Blackout, Whitner’s life might have been spared.
Fall 2005- San Diego, California
Brian’s story is a successful case, albeit a close call. So close, that Brian hit the brink between life and death and luckily his friend was able to revive him to life. In line with the typical profile of a Shallow Water Blackout victim, Brian is a strong, advanced swimmer and was a member of the NAVY. In his profession, Brian was required to train for diving. His training involved diving techniques, brick walking, breath-holding exercises, and hyperventilation before submerging under the water. In the Fall of 2005, after hours at one of the Navy Base pools on Coronado Island, San Diego, Brian and a few other trainees practiced their skills. Brian attempted the 50-meter brick walk, a pervasive training technique in his field. He was only a couple feet under the water and like anyone who trains intensively, had his mind set on his goal. He was to stay submerged, holding his breath and walk 50-meters underwater, without coming up for air. Committed to his underwater goal, Brain started under the water holding a brick unknowingly passing through the warning signs of Shallow Water Blackout. He remembers a strong urge to breathe. He still wanted to complete the task and forced his body to continue past his limits. He felt pounding in his head, pressure behind his eyes and in his chest and throat. This seemingly is any body’s reaction to air deprivation and it is difficult to know when training that the body is actually past its limits. The next memory of Brian’s was coughing on the pool deck. He was lucky. His friends were able to pull him out of the water in time after he had been underwater for a little over a minute. His friend started CPR. If any of the events had delayed at all, there is a good chance that Brian would not be here today. Brian suggests for other swimmers to “let someone know you’re there, know your limits and don’t hyperventilate.” While it is necessary to push limits in order to progress, he explains there are other ways to challenge oneself and build endurance and strength, such as other cardiovascular activities. “When you have that urge to breathe, it’s for a reason,” he explains. “If I didn’t have anyone with me, I’d most likely be gone.” He also advises notifying the lifeguard if attempting any training exercises. Additionally, he notes that taking a few quick breaths before training, otherwise known as hyperventilation, actually builds CO2 in the system and causes individuals to pass out quicker. Brian is an example of a success story. We need to learn from the experience he shared. Avoid Shallow Water Blackout, so others swimmers do not have close calls. Many others are not able to share their experiences because they don’t survive Shallow Water Blackout. It takes lives. Spread the word and educate about SWB, so it can’t claim any more victims.
Summer 1986- Lake Guerrero, Texas
Julian Ottley blacked out while swimming with friends in the lake in the summer of 1986. Luckily, his friends Sarah and Jim were there to save him and prevent a needless death.
Survivor’s account of the incident: “I may have tried to laugh off my “shallow water blackout” down in Mexico, but I have always recognized that I could have drowned if you (or someone) had not been there to pull me out. To me it was one of those freak experiences in life where I realize I could have died but, did not. I was very fortunate that there were people around paying attention to what I was doing. Especially Sarah who recognized there was a problem and made you quickly jump in to pull me out. What I remember about the experience was Dick Lee challenging me to swimming underwater laps, I didn’t realize it at the time but, he had been doing a lot of snorkeling in the Bahamas and had learned to control his need for H20, I guess. Anyway, as kids Dudley, Jr. & I use to always have the underwater races at the farm pool and I had never seen anyone “black out” doing it and i was pretty good at pushing the limits of it. I know hyperventilating was a trick we used to get as much air in the lungs as possible and I did that before my final race against Dick. I think, I actually swam maybe 3 1/4 laps underwater in the pool before realizing I needed to give up the race and surface for air. After that, I don’t remember anything until I “came to” at the side of the pool with a bunch of people standing over me. I remember them asking if I was alright and all I could knew was that my back was killing me from where I was dragged out of the pool over the concrete. I know I have never swam underwater laps sense, for obvious reasons, it give me quite a scare. I guess the “black out” was just that, a black out, as I don’t remember any of it? But, I do credit you (Jim Kennedy and Sarah) for saving my life, I am sure every second counts in a situation like that and I have no doubt your quick response made the difference.”
Joe Dean Lewis
Summer 1981- Grand Cayman Island (as told by Joe Dean Lewis)
My survivor story takes place in the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean. My best friend Lance and I were working on a dive boat off of Grand Cayman Island, when the accident occurred. For two years prior we had trained extensively to become the best freedivers/ spearfishermen that we could be. To increase our lung capacity our regimen included running, swimming underwater laps, blowing up balloons, breath holding at the deep end of the pool, and freediving to ever increasing depths off the coast of Southern California. We had heard of SWB from Lance’s dad Ron, a championship spearfisherman from back in the day, who had experienced it while diving alone off of Catalina Island, luckily for him he awoke on the surface with his weight belt off and snorkel still in his mouth. Being young and invincible we continued to push the limits of breath holding; going deeper and deeper, staying under longer and longer, all the while employing the extremely dangerous practice of hyperventilation. The Caribbean’s crystal clear waters made it even more tempting to reach greater depths, and not until the accident did we realize how many times we had put ourselves in potentially deadly situations. The day I blacked out I was trying to beat my personal record of 85 ft. and decided to try a 100 foot freedive. Before attempting such dives we would go through a routine of mental and physical relaxation, taking deep rhythmic breaths that would speed up right before the descent; hyperventilation to the point our faces would tingle! After reaching 15 feet or so your weight becomes negative and you start to descend quite rapidly and effortlessly. I reached the 100 foot mark then made the u-turn for my ascent; looking up from that depth is very humbling to say the least. At 50 feet I knew that I could make it but it was going to be close. Anxiously I reached the surface and cleared my snorkel, then everything went black, next thing I remember I’m coughing up sea water and Lance is calling out my name. He later recounts that as soon as I cleared my snorkel I started to sink like a rock; if not for his assistance I would have died, no doubt. That day we both learned a valuable lesson and decided not to push ourselves to those extreme limits, and to never freedive alone. We obviously made some cardinal mistakes concerning SWB for many years, and are both very lucky; we still enjoy spearfishing to this day, but always follow the golden rules:
1) Never hyperventilate
2) Never dive alone
3) Never push yourself to unsafe limits
4) Never make breath holding a competition