Pediatric drownings are heartbreaking, preventable tragedies that leave lifelong emotional scars on family members, firefighters and neighborhoods, but there are many other drownings that have received little or no attention.
Safety campaigns since the 1980s have consistently focused on reducing and preventing pediatric drownings, with everyone agreeing there was a need to protect the most vulnerable victims.
But adult drownings are entirely different events with the same tragic results. Instead of vulnerable toddlers innocently wandering into life-threatening bodies of water, adult drowning victims often have used alcohol or drugs, have experienced some sort of unanticipated medical emergency or have overestimated their ability to swim.
When the Coalition to Prevent Drowning in Arizona observed pediatric drowning fatalities dropping in the past two decades, the result of pool fence laws and campaigns to increase vigilant adult supervision of children around water, it noticed a surprising and troubling trend.
In the four major East Valley cities –Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe – 12 of the 24 victims who drowned in 2016 were adults. In Chandler and Gilbert, all seven drowning victims last year were adults. The numbers, which fluctuate from year to year, underscore the fact that adult drownings are a chronic problem, just like pediatric drownings, but for different reasons.
If Phoenix is added to the death toll, the numbers are even more startling: 30 out of the 37 drowning victims during 2016 were adults.
“I think people are more sympathetic to children. Kids are naturally drawn to the water,” said Jackie Morgan, executive director of leadership and risk management for the Valley of the Sun YMCA. “People are less sympathetic to adults drowning. They feel like they should know better.”
Morgan said the unfortunate statistics demonstrate that adults need to change their attitude toward water, recognizing that it is not just a source of enjoyment but also a potential threat. She said adults should never swim alone, because of unanticipated issues such as cramps, head collisions with pool walls and other medical problems.
“They think they can swim, so they are waterproof,” Morgan said. “Just because you are a good swimmer doesn’t mean you can’t drown.”
Morgan said adults should respect water, rather than take it for granted, and use common-sense precautions. An adult who is not a good swimmer should avoid the water until taking swimming lessons, or a swimmer who is not feeling well should choose to stay away from the water on a particular day, Morgan said.
“I think learning a skill as an adult is intimidating, especially when there is fear involved,” she said. “Swimming is a life skill. It’s about survival. It’s like looking both ways before you cross a street.”
Sandra Franks, executive director of the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA, said swimming classes for adults are increasingly popular.
“Lots of times, you have parents and grandparents who have children, who need to be safe around water,” Franks said. “They need to be able to jump in” and save a child from drowning if necessary.
Franks said that East Valley YMCAs offer group classes and individualized instruction for adults.
“It gives you quality time with the instructor, at your own pace, at your own level,” she said.
Sharon Sholes, 56, of Chandler, was always around water when she lived on the East Coast, but she was never confident in her swimming ability. She always wears a life vest or uses a flotation device, but she decided recently to confront her fears about water and to take an adult swim class at the Ahwatukee YMCA.
Part of Sholes’ motivation is that she is looking for exercise that puts less friction on her joints as she gets older. She dreams about going snorkeling in Hawaii without a flotation device.
“You don’t voice your fears. You feel a little ashamed,” Sholes said. “I was never a strong swimmer. I always had a fear of the water I kept to myself.”
Sholes said that in New York and New Jersey, she was used to seeing lifeguards, which gave her a sense of security, but she felt very vulnerable at Saguaro Lake, north of Mesa, realizing there was no one there to help her.
The tragic death of Ryan Thomas, 21, an Arizona State University student who was also a center for the Mountain View High School football team, shows tragedy can happen at any time around water.
Thomas drowned eight years ago in Saguaro Lake only about 20 feet from the shoreline. Described as an above-average swimmer, Thomas was not wearing a life vest. Thomas’ death motivated family members to the launch the Ryan Thomas Foundation, hoping to save other families from suffering such a devastating loss. The foundation has kiosks at eight lakes, including Saguaro, where visitors can borrow a life vest for the day. It has donated 1,000 vests in memory of Thomas.
“We kind of look at this as Ryan’s legacy, to save other families” from such tragic losses, said Shannon Liebrock of Chandler, Thomas’ aunt. “I think with adults, there is over-confidence in their swimming abilities.”
‘Regardless of age’
While people tend to blame adults for behavior that contributes to drowning, “accidents are accidents regardless of age,” she said.
Josh Hoffman, boating safety education coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said the vests donated in Thomas’ memory are heavily used during the boating season.
Although some disappear from kiosks for months, only to return after the end of boating season, authorities are just happy to see the vests used to prevent drownings, he said.
In Arizona, children ages 12 or younger are required to wear life vests on boats, while it is voluntary for teens and adults.
“The drowning of children with boating has definitely plateaued,” Hoffman said. “It’s still a constant battle with adult drowning.”
He said one theory in Thomas’ death is that he may have succumbed to “cold water shock,” a reaction to the contrast between 100-degree air temperatures and 70-degree water temperatures.
“Your body is going to want to gasp. It’s an involuntary reaction,” Hoffman said.
When a victim’s lungs fill with water, “at that point, you might not be able to regain the surface” without help from a floatation device, he said.
Lori Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Scottsdale Fire Department and the drowning prevention coalition, said she has seen tragic incidents where adults could have been saved from drowning through additional vigilance.
She said there needs to be a sober “water watcher” at pool parties, keeping track of people to make sure there are no life-threatening accidents.
“Someone needs to be paying attention, whether it’s an adult or a child,” she said.
Schmidt said that mixing alcohol with swimming can have the same disastrous effects as mixing drinking with driving.
“The adults need to change the way they think about water,” she said. “It just hasn’t been focused on. People are not aware of the risks.”
Sholes said its obvious more adults need to take swim classes in Arizona. She ended up with her individualized class because not enough people signed up for the group class.
– Reach Jim Walsh at 480-898-5639 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.