Over the July 4 weekend of 2003, two men drowned after jumping into the water to rescue separate children who had fallen into the water. One incident occurred in Cass County, the other in Clearwater County. Both occurred nearly one year to the day after a similar incident on Hardy Lake west of Brainerd. In each case, a non-life jacket wearing adult jumped into the water to "rescue" a lifejacket wearing child who had either fallen or jumped over board. What makes these deaths especially tragic is that they occurred in the midst of love and valor and they were entirely unnecessary.
Who among us would hesitate to give our all, up to our life, to save the life of our child? It is exactly this kind of love that propels us to jump into the water, even if we are unprepared for what is about to happen. It is this lack or preparation that causes us to act before we think. And it is this kind of action that leads to unintended and often tragic consequences. If these heroic men had taken the time to don their lifejackets before they leaped to the rescue, they would have survived.
A conscious, uninjured person in the water in a properly fitted and worn life jacket is not experiencing a life-threatening emergency. The lifejacket will do exactly what it is designed to do every time, without fail. It will preserve the life of the wearer by keeping that person afloat until help can arrive. If this takes minutes, the lifejacket will do its work for minutes. If it takes hours, the lifejacket will continue to work for hours. This is not, typically, the type of event that calls for life-risking heroism.
I, in no way, want to lessen the valor and effort of these men who gave their lives while attempting to save another. They made the ultimate sacrifice and for that they are commended. My sympathy goes out to their families and those who loved them. At the same time, we need to ask: What lessons can those of us who are still living take from these tragedies?
In each case, the child to be rescued was later pulled from the water, alive, by someone other than the drowning victim. By someone who did not enter the water, but who brought him or her into a boat. By someone who let the lifejacket do what it was designed to do and who took action consistent with their ability and knowledge.
When you are in and around the water, remember these rules.
1. Wear a lifejacket. The three children in these incidents did, and they are alive.
2. Don't overestimate your ability. The three adults in these incidents did with tragic consequences.
3. Have a plan. What will you do if someone falls overboard? Have you thought about it? Have you verbalized it with the rest of your boating party? Do you have the tools and the ability to execute the plan? Have you practiced? If your plan for rescuing someone you love involves you jumping into a large, open body of water, practice that plan. Find out if you can do it before you need to. You may be amazed at your own limitations.
4. Keep your wits about you. Don't panic. What looks like an emergency may not be. A child flailing about in the water is not in mortal danger if that child is wearing a lifejacket. You have time. Use it wisely, calmly and deliberately. Do what you planned to do in step 3. Put on your lifejacket. Reach out to the victim. Throw something to him or her. Then, if you must, go to him or her. If you practice these steps before the emergency, you will be able to stay calm. You will be able to make a rescue, and you will be able to go home. Alive.
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