Swim lessons lower drowning risk

Last week I was invited to and attended a committee chaired by Nancy Phillion of the Health Department, whose members include a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a pathologist, and high-ranking representatives of the Department of Education, Family Court, the Police Department and Child Protective Services.

The committee is called CDR, standing for Child Death Review. Not a cheerful subject — unfortunately not all of life is cheerful. The mission of the committee is to examine pediatric deaths on Kaua‘i from all possible angles, and to then try and determine what can be done to minimize this most terrible of events, a family losing a child.

I was invited to this particular meeting in order to review drownings on Kaua‘i. Although pediatric drownings on Kaua‘i mercifully are quite rare, even one is too many. Phillion showed us statistics that nationwide pediatric drowning ranks higher than motor vehicle accidents as a cause of child death. “Pediatric” is defined as under 18 years old.

Ocean/beach drownings in this age group are actually extremely rare on Kaua‘i. I believe there have been three in the last 25 years.

We know that the measure of even one can’t be overstated, the recent mind-boggling Myanmar and China disasters notwithstanding.) People raised on Kaua‘i learn to be very aware of the ocean’s power and their level of ability.

Fresh water drownings, including swimming pools, are a very significant problem in many states that don’t have ocean shorelines but have many rivers, lakes and swimming pools. And they are not an insignificant problem here on Kaua‘i. Although I don’t have hard numbers in hand, I do know that too many have occured here.

The conclusion that we came to in the committee is that the best thing we can do, in order to address this issue, is to promote “drown-proofing” for our children. Up until around 25 years ago there was a mandatory swimming course for fourth-graders.

The committee’s DOE representative, Kelly Knudsen, explained that there is no chance that this program can or will be restarted. There are liability problems as well as the special challenges involved with our handicapped schoolchildren, so it cannot be mandatory. The DOE can certainly get involved with incorporating water safety principles into curricula. That in itself will take considerable doing and persistence.

So, we’re left with our private swimming teachers — and there are several outstanding ones on Kauai; and our county learn-to-swim programs.

The latter, being free, are of course the ones that could have the broadest appeal and impact. They fill up very quickly, however, and the committee firmly resolved that more resources should be directed toward expanding these programs. Right now, for example, they’re only offered during the summer break.

With the current school schedules — with three signficant breaks during the year — these classes should be offered during all the breaks. This will definitely require a step-up in our Department of Parks and Recreation resources, including personnel. Such a step-up will require a lot of lobbying and organizing.

The goal sure is worth it — our own childrens’ safety. (Note: Our beach lifeguards are in the Fire Department, our pools and pool lifeguards are under the parks department. Our beach lifeguards do yeoman’s work with the Junior Lifeguard program, which isn’t about drown-proofing but rather is about training — with resounding success — our youth to be safety presences on our beaches and in our surf.)

A dramatic new resource will be the soon-to-be-completed and fabulous-appearing YMCA pool in Puhi. This will offer a first-class facility for not only competitive swimming but also for drown-proofing classes. There will be a fee for the latter — $60 for the six lessons. This is as low a fee as you’ll ever find for a private program, but still it will exclude a significant percentage of our children from participating. Maybe the government and the YMCA can work together to develop a scholarship plan.

One other topic mentioned at the meeting was children suffocating under sand. This hasn’t happened on Kaua‘i’s beaches but nationally it is a known problem, and the prevention is simply to not let your child play in a hole that is deeper than the child’s knee.

I was honored to be invited to attend this committee meeting. It isn’t one of our island’s fun-and-games committees, but the importance of its mission is second to none. Godspeed to Phillion and the committee members as they continue their work for our children and grandchildren.

• Monty Downs is an emergency room doctor at Wilcox Memorial Hospital. His column appears every other Wednesday.

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