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Drowning: Risk factors, rescue and prevention

A San Marcos firefighter rescues a woman from floodwaters.
A San Marcos firefighter rescues a woman from floodwaters.

There have been at least two dozen deaths from recent flash flooding in Texas.

Some of those helping state teams search for flood victims work in UT-Southwestern’s emergency medicine department.

Dr. Deborah Diercks chairs that department and oversees the faculty practice of Emergency Medicine at Parkland Hospital and Clements University Hospital. In today’s installment of KERA’s health series, Vital Signs, she talked about factors that influence drowning risk, and what the search efforts were like for her colleagues.

Who have been most of the flash flood victims: “The ones we hear most about are children. Typically, when you look at flood victims, they are younger adults, in general, from drownings themselves, which are three quarters of all deaths from floods. And part of it is flash floods unexpected, but also some risk behavior. You see all the signs around Dallas: “Do not drive into floodwater.” And people driving cars into areas they think they can get through, and (they) get stuck. They don’t realize the currents, how fast it’s rising and , unfortunately, if they can get out of a car who’s stuck in a flash flood, and the reality is unless it’s submerged, it’s almost impossible to get out of the car.”

Could flood victims have survived if they were reached sooner? “I think a lot of times when you talk about drowning, you’re talking about minutes. And so unless somebody sees that person go under, it becomes almost a recovery very rapidly. The amount of time you can go without oxygen varies, but usually it’s a matter of minutes. And these flash flood people underestimate the currents or they get stuck in a current. They’re may be debris that hit them.”

Near drowning survivors can still face injury: “Our functioning requires oxygen, so you can survive a drowning, but if you don’t enough oxygen to the brain, you can be severely damaged from that, and may not be able to function like you would normally do.”

What to do when faced with a drowning victim:

  • Call 911- “… and stay on the line. Those dispatchers can help anybody through those situations.”
  • Pull the victim out of the water and perform CPR – “If someone’s not breathing and their heart’s not beating, using compressions and pushing on their chest will get oxygen to them well. If it’s trauma and you think they’re in the situation they’re in because they hit their head, make sure their neck is well controlled."

What NOT to do:

  • Do not put yourself as a rescuer at risk.
  • Don’t move the victim significantly. Get them out of the water enough to perform CPR until help arrives. Don’t try to put them in the back of a car to get them to the hospital.

Prevention is important:

  • Read the warning signs. Don’t drive into water.
  • Watch your kids around pools.
  • Have someone designated at a pool party to watch people in the water.

For more information:

Drowning Signs Aren't Like The Movies