Adult drownings are issue in East Valley, so Chandler woman learns to swim - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Adult drownings are issue in East Valley, so Chandler woman learns to swim

June 30th, 2017 development
Adult drownings are issue in East Valley, so Chandler woman learns to swim

By Jim Walsh

Pediatric drownings are heartbreaking, preventable tragedies that leave lifelong emotional scars on family members, firefighters, and neighborhoods. But many other drownings in Chandler and other parts of the East Valley have received little or no attention.

Safety campaigns since the 1980s have consistently focused on reducing and preventing pediatric drownings, with everyone agreeing there was a need to protect the most vulnerable victims.

But adult drownings are entirely different events with the same tragic results. Instead of vulnerable toddlers innocently wandering into life-threatening bodies of water, the adult drowning victims often have used alcohol or drugs, have experienced some sort of unanticipated medical emergency, or have overestimated their ability to swim.

When the Coalition to Prevent Drowning in Arizona observed pediatric drowning fatalities dropping in the past two decades (the result of pool fence laws and campaigns to increase vigilant adult supervision of children around water), it noticed a surprising and troubling trend.

In the four major East Valley cities – Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa and Tempe – 12 of the 24 victims who drowned in 2016 were adults. In Chandler and Gilbert, all seven drowning victims were adults last year. The numbers fluctuate from year to year, but it all underscores the fact that adult drownings are a chronic problem, not just pediatric drownings, but for different reasons.

Sharon Sholes, 56, of Chandler, does not want to become a drowning statistic.

She was always around water when she lived on the East Coast, but she was never confident in her swimming ability. Sholes always wears a life vest or uses a flotation device, but she decided recently to confront her fears about water and take an adult swim class at the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA.

Part of her motivation was to look for exercise that puts less friction on her joints as she gets older. She dreams about going snorkeling in Hawaii without a flotation device.

“You don’t voice your fears. You feel a little ashamed,’’ Sholes said. “I was never a strong swimmer. I always had a fear of the water I kept to myself.’’

Sholes said that in New York and New Jersey, she was used to seeing lifeguards, which gave her a sense of security, but she felt very vulnerable at Saguaro Lake north of Mesa because there was no one there to help her.

If Phoenix is added to the death toll, the numbers of adult drownings are even more startling, with 30 out of the 37 drowning victims during 2016 being adults. In Phoenix, 18 out of 25 drowning victims were adults in 2016.

“I think people are more sympathetic to children. Kids are naturally drawn to the water,’’ said Jackie Morgan, executive director of leadership and risk management for the Valley of the Sun YMCA. “People are less sympathetic to adults drowning. They feel like they should know better.’’

Morgan said the unfortunate statistics demonstrate that adults need to change their attitude toward water, recognizing it is not just a source of enjoyment but also a potential threat. She said adults should never swim alone because of unanticipated cramps, head collisions against pool walls and other medical problems.

“They think they can swim, so they are waterproof,’’ Morgan said. “Just because you are a good swimmer doesn’t mean you can’t drown.’’

Morgan said adults should respect water, rather than take it for granted, and take common sense precautions. An adult who is not a good swimmer should avoid the water until taking swimming lessons, and a swimmer who is not feeling well should stay away from the water on a particular day, she said.

“I think learning a skill as an adult is intimidating, especially when there is fear involved,’’ Morgan said. “Swimming is a life skill. It’s about survival. It’s like looking both ways before you cross a street.’’

Sandra Franks, executive director of the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA, said swimming classes for adults are increasingly popular.

“Lots of times, you have parents and grandparents who have children, who need to be safe around water,’’ Franks said. “They need to be able to jump in’’ and save a child from drowning if necessary.

Franks said East Valley YMCAs offer group classes and individualized instruction for adults.

“It gives you quality time with the instructor, at your own pace, at your own level,’’ she said.

The death of Ryan Thomas, 21, an Arizona State University student who was also a center for the Mountain View High School football team, shows tragedy can happen any time around water.

Thomas drowned eight years ago in Saguaro Lake only about 20 feet from the shoreline. Described as an above-average swimmer, Thomas was not wearing a life vest.

Thomas’ death motivated family members to launch the Ryan Thomas Foundation, hoping to save other families from suffering such a devastating loss. The foundation has kiosks at eight lakes, including Saguaro, where visitors can borrow a life vest for the day. It has donated 1,000 vests in memory of Thomas.

“We kind of look at this as Ryan’s legacy, to save other families’’ from such tragic losses, said Shannon Liebrock of Chandler, Thomas’ aunt. “I think with adults, there is over-confidence in their swimming abilities.’’

She said there is no sense of outrage when an adult drowns, a huge difference from the sympathetic reaction that generally follows the death of a toddler.

“When an adult drowns, they feel like it’s the adult’s fault,’’ Liebrock said. “Accidents are accidents regardless of age.’’

Lori Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Scottsdale Fire Department and the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona, said she has seen incidents where adults could have been saved from drowning through additional vigilance.

She said there needs to be a sober “water-watcher’’ at pool parties, keeping track of people to make sure there are no life-threatening accidents. Schmidt recalled a sad case where no one present at a party noticed that a college student had broken his neck until the party was ending.

“He potentially could have been saved,’’ she said. “Someone needs to be paying attention, whether it’s an adult or a child (in the water).’’

Schmidt said mixing alcohol with swimming can have the same disastrous effects as mixing drinking with driving.

“The adults need to change the way they think about water,’’ she said. “It just hasn’t been focused on. People are not aware of the risks.’’

Schmidt said there have not been any well-publicized safety campaigns aimed at preventing adult drowning, but the issue is starting to get more attention from water safety advocates. She said one idea that has been discussed is to ask pharmacies to attach warnings to prescriptions about the risk of swimming while under the influence of certain drugs.

Sholes said it’s obvious more adults need to take swim classes in Arizona. She ended up with her individualized class because not enough people signed up for the group class.

“I’ve been to Hawaii a couple of times,’’ Sholes said. “I thought, ‘Oh gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to come back here and have that freedom.’’’

(Photo special to SanTan Sun News)

Many adult drownings in Chandler have received little or no attention.