Let’s Talk About Drowning

I’m embarrassed to admit how late in my outdoor recreation game I learned how to help a drowned patient. I wasn’t there when my friend Rob Kehrer drowned, and if I had been, I wouldn’t have known how to help.

Rob drowned in 2014. I was traveling with him just days before, and chose to split off with other friends that were moving faster. Rob and Greg Mills comprised “Team Heavy,” an affectionate reference to Rob’s willingness to carry extra gear (and move slower because of it). My friends have endless stories of Rob’s extra gear and generosity. This exchange is from our first night out:

Rob: Are you cold? You should take my spare long johns.

Me: I don’t want to take your spare long johns. What if you get cold?

Rob: No, I mean my spare spare long johns. I have another extra pair for me.

After Rob’s drowning, I imagined scenarios where I had kept traveling with him and Greg. Would I have recognized the water hazard? Been able to help Rob out of the water? But if he was unconscious, what then?

When I took a swiftwater rescue course I was surprised that it didn’t include patient treatment. Isn’t that the whole point? To prevent people from drowning? I understand the justification now that I’m on the other side of the coin, something like, “preparing for medical emergencies is beyond the scope of this class. You should learn that from a medical professional.” So, I did (Wilderness First Responder from Deb Ajango, Alaska) and started to fill some of the gaps in my outdoor preparation.

I don’t want to re-write what I wrote about drowning in The Packraft Handbook, so I will embed an excerpt below. My discussion was heavily influenced by Chris Davis, doctor and river guide, whose YouTube presentation (also below) emphasized two points:

  • Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid. That’s the actual WHO definition. If you have coughed to remove water from your airway, you have experienced drowning. Processes can be stopped and reversed—this is what we are counting on.
  • The major problem is that the patient’s brain is starved of oxygen (transported from the lungs by blood circulation). The priority is to get oxygen in the lungs, most likely by rescue breathing (CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation). Chris’ video includes a compelling clip of a surfer rescue breathing for a patient while they are still in the water … the sooner oxygen gets into the lungs and blood, the better.

Here is the drowning excerpt from The Packraft Handbook:

The Packraft Handbook: Drowning excerpt

Here is Chris’ presentation. I highly recommend watching the full 60 minutes.

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