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Backpacker Magazine – June 1997

Drowning Victims: In Over Your Head

Your partner just disappeared under an icy torrent. Quick, do you know what to do next?

by: Buck Tilton

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  • Give two full breaths and check for a pulse. If there is no pulse...
  • Place the heel of one hand on the person's breastbone about two finger-widths above the lower end of the breastbone.
  • Place the other hand on top of your first hand. With your arms straight, quickly compress the chest 11/2 to 2 inches and release. Each compression/ release cycle should last a second.
  • If you are working alone, complete 15 compressions before giving two more full breaths. If you are working with someone, alternate 5 compressions to one full breath.
  • Repeat the cycle of 15 compressions/two breaths four times, and check for a return of pulse.
  • If you don't find a pulse, continue CPR until she starts breathing on her own, someone replaces you, you become physically exhausted, or a medical expert arrives.

Don't worry about water in the lungs because most of it will be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. She needs oxygen immediately, and you're better off trying to blow air in than trying to drain the lungs. Also, expect her to vomit. When she does, roll her on her side, clean out her mouth, then roll her back over and continue CPR until she regains consciousness.

In cold-water conditions, it's possible to mistakenly assume someone has drowned, when in fact they are still very much alive. Cold causes the blood to be shunted away from the body's periphery, and a pulse can be too weak to find. Don't start chest compressions right away because you can actually stop a cold-but-beating heart. In a hypothermic case, take your time-a minute or more is not uncommon-checking for a pulse before beginning CPR. Breathing for the victim won't hurt, even if she is doing it for herself already, so don't hesitate to start mouth-to-mouth.

Prolonged immersion victims usually suffer some degree of hypothermia. Get the victim's wet clothing off as soon as possible, and gently dry her body. She must stay warm to prevent further heat loss, so wrap her in a blanket or sleeping bag, or dress her in dry clothes. If she can drink and eat, give her warm fluids and easily digestible foods like hard candy. Once dried, dressed, watered, and fed, she might be able to walk out of the woods on her own.

Anyone who has had a brush with drowning should be hurried to a medical facility. In Susan's case, you check her pulse after two full ventilations and find it strong. After a couple of minutes, she coughs violently and begins to breathe on her own. When she's alert, you head back to the car. Susan gets a full medical check-up and enjoys complete recovery.

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