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Farmington Hills, Michigan

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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
Attorney • (877) 377-7848

Shallow Water Blackout – The Silent Killer of Swimmers

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Did you know that prolonged or repeated breath holding is dangerous?

The family of a 21-year-old man who died after going into cardiac arrest while performing a grueling underwater endurance process have reached an out-or-court settlement of $600, 000. In a court affidavit, the victim’s mother and administrator of his estate, said accepting the settlement was in the “best interests” of his family and the estate.

The young man was one of two men who were pulled unconscious from the bottom of a public pool in Staten Island in July 2011. For a month they had been practicing at the 3 1/2 foot deep pool with two friends in the hopes of one day joining elite military groups – one with the U.S. Air Force para-rescue unit and the other as a Navy Seal.

Both men were given CPR until emergency medical technicians arrived about five or six minutes later and took over. The victims were taken transported to the hospital, where the Navy Seal trainee died later that day. The 21-year-old Air Force hopeful died four days later. His death was classified as accidental and due to a lack of oxygen to the brain occurring during a near-drowning, according to the autopsy report.

The families of both victims said that the city did not have enough lifeguards on duty that day, and that the city “failed to use reasonable care in the employment, training and supervision of its employees to find out whether they were competent to do their work without danger of harm to others by failing to reasonably supervise, prevent and instruct members at the facility,” according to separate lawsuits. The complaints also stated that had the facility had an AED (automated external defibrillator) handy, they might have been able to revive both of the young men. The pool was not required to have a defibrillator; however, because it was a multiuse facility, it did. Yet, it took five to six minutes for personnel to locate the device.

The city contended the deaths resulted from “shallow water blackout.” Shallow water blackout is caused when oxygen levels in the brain get drastically low, and carbon dioxide in the body is even lower, often due to hyperventilation before submerging. The low level of carbon dioxide is the catalyst for shallow water blackout, as it’s often too low to signal the brain to tell the body to surface. Once oxygen is depleted, the swimmer faints underwater and drowns. The scary thing is that shallow water blackout can happen in as little as three feet of water, without warning, and victims often show no obvious signs of distress.

The city now has posted signs warning of the dangers of shallow-water blackout and in September 2013, officially banned underwater breath-control practices.

Shallow water blackout (SWB) is not as uncommon as one might think. It can affect both kids and adults; it has claimed the lives of even the most accomplished swimmers. Think about kids that play an innocent game of Marco Polo or “who can hold their breath the longest?” While the challenge may seem fun and harmless, the practice can cause swimmers to faint and drown without warning and before anyone notices. SWB is so dangerous that even Olympian Michael Phelps has been working to bring awareness and prevention through a public service announcement.

To prevent SWB:

  • Never swim alone.
  • Don’t ignore the urge to breathe
  • Don’t attempt long or repetitive underwater swims.
  • Never compete in breath-holding games

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.