When Water Becomes Deadly

 

Summer is around the corner and that means water activities. I have a LOVE/hate relationship with water.  I love, love, love the water.  I grew up cottaging on a lake, swimming like a fish and teaching little kids to swim.  But my love of the water was forever changed one day when water became deadly.   This story isn’t a happy one and for that reason, I don’t often tell it.  In fact, outside of my family there aren’t many people that know it.  But there is a message here so I feel like it needs to be shared, especially with parents.

Growing up on the lake we were always forced to wear our lifejackets in a boat, which to a 12 year old can feel somewhat humiliating.  However, my parents’ rule was that once we passed our Bronze Medallion (level 1 of a lifesaving course through the Royal Lifesaving Society of Canada) then we didn’t have to wear one anymore.  You could take the course when you were 13 years old.  As soon as I was old enough, I registered for the eight week course and passed.  I learned water safety, rescues, resuscitation, and an introduction to spinal injury management.  It also required an endurance swim of 500 meters in 15 minutes.  I passed in the early spring which meant that that summer I wouldn’t need to wear a lifejacket anymore.  That was good enough for me.

June 3, 1989, shortly after having passed my Bronze Medallion we were up at my parents’ cottage for the weekend.  It was a cold, rainy day so we were all inside.  My dad was teaching us how to play poker using matchsticks as currency and my sister and I were waiting for the weather to clear so we could head into town by boat.  I should point out that my parents’ cottage is on an island so anytime we needed to go somewhere we had to go by boat, which meant that I learned to confidently drive a boat at an early age. 

The weather cleared and my sister (12 at the time) and I said good bye to our parents and headed down to the dock to go into town.  When we got to the dock we noticed that our neighbor’s boat was circling in the water and their dog was barking from the back platform of the boat.  We also noticed a plastic bag floating in the water.  I told her I was going to go over and stop the boat, I figured it had just become untied somehow and they had forgotten to turn it off.  My sister ran up to the cottage to tell my parents.  I got into our tin boat and completely out of habit I put on my lifejacket, even though I didn’t need to anymore.  I drove slowly (it isn’t far) over to our neighbors and quickly realized that what I thought was a plastic bag was actually our 16 year old neighbor, Sija, floating face down in the water. 

My response was automatic. I had just been through these exact scenarios in my lifesaving course.   I jumped in the water (in my lifejacket), which was a cold 54 degrees, kicked her with my foot to make sure I had enough distance between us in case she startled and tried to grab on to me.  When she didn’t move I flipped her over, checked for breathing and started AR (artificial resuscitation) while swimming us both back to her dock. 

At that point my parents had come down to the dock and my dad ran across land from our cottage and helped me pull Sija out of the water and then sent me back to our cottage.  My mom had already called an ambulance as well as our marina to help bring over the EMT’s.  All we could do was wait.  My mom went back over to help my dad and the kids were told to stay in the cottage.  Time seemed to crawl.

The EMTs came over by boat as did a police officer.  I’ll never forget the police officer, Tim Parish from Bala OPP (Ontario Provincial Police).  My dad and I gave him our versions of what happened.  I can remember feeling almost excited because I was certain we had saved her life.  After speaking with the police officer we went into town to go and see Sija at the hospital and check on her mom.  My parents told us to wait in the car.  Again, time crawled. 

My parents came out and that was the first time in my life that I ever saw my dad cry.  Sija had passed away.  I remember feeling shock, disbelief and a crushing feeling in my chest.  In my mind, if you did all of the things that they told you to do in the lifesaving course, you saved people, they didn’t die.  I was furious and so sad. 

Later that year, my dad and I received an award for bravery (or something to that effect) from the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.  I was ashamed and embarrassed.  Everyone else that was getting honored saved someone’s life.  I went on to complete my Bronze Cross and eventually NLS (National Life Guard Service) certifications.  Each time, hoping I could actually save someone’s life with my skills.  I’m still waiting for that day to come but I know that if it does, I am well prepared to act. 

Over time I realized that I learned something about myself that day.  I learned that in an emergency situation I take action and I find that comforting.  It also gave me a very real respect for water.  As a result, I have been somewhat neurotic with my kids around water, but it is in the interest of keeping safety first, and coming from a very real place of fear and respect. 

If we don’t learn anything from a tragedy then we allow the possibility for the event to repeat itself.  So there are a few lessons to take away from this experience:

  • Put your kids in lifejackets if they don’t know how to swim, drowning can be prevented
  • If you haven’t already, take a CPR or lifesaving course, you may never need it, but you’ll be happy to have the skills
  • You can always help in an emergency, if you don’t know what to do, often the best help is calling 911
  • Develop an emergency plan for your family, not only could it save precious time but if everyone has a role to play then it may help alleviate panic and drive everyone into action instead of apathy

In the end, what happened to Sija was no fault of her own and likely could not have been prevented; she had an asthma attack and fell into the water while she was trying to reach for the dock.  Her parents moved away from that cottage and my heart breaks when I think about Sija’s mom. Now that I’m a parent I can’t even imagine the hell that she has gone through, I hope in the last 22 years she has been able to find some peace.

Be safe this summer.

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