Many of you may not know it, but my whole life I’ve been involved swimming. My first swim team was at age six. Until I went to college, I don’t remember not being on a swim team. Plus many years as a lifeguard, teaching swimming and water skiing, and many Red Cross certifications including the highest one; water safety instructor. Well with that and all my years of medical training, especially with emergency room work, it all came to fruition this morning. And I am so grateful I was there.
I was doing my swim workout this morning at the Santa Monica College pool, which is a 50 meters in length. I know many of the swimmers there, including this one woman I had met at a few weeks ago who happens to be an excellent swimmer. Anyway, as I was coming up on about 25-meter mark, which is halfway in the pool, I saw someone on the bottom of the pool. This is not unusual, as many people occasionally dive to the bottom and spring up or just dive to the bottom and kind of swim around a little and then come up.
But after my second stroke in passing her, I sensed something wasn’t right. Just my sixth sense after years of training in medicine and swimming. I then saw her hand twitch a little and I immediately knew something was very wrong. Instinctively, in mid-stroke, I dove to the bottom of the pool (about 10 feet) and grabbed her. She was frozen like a solid block and I knew instantly she was having a seizure. I knew I had to get her up to the surface immediately. This was not easy, as her entire body was in complete spasm, curled up in a ball. When I got to the surface of the water, I had to lift her to get her head out of the water as even her neck was rigid. I quickly put her on top of the lane line so I could keep her mouth out of the water. I also yelled to the lifeguards. Then, with my lifeguard experience, I was able to get her to the side of the pool with her mouth facing up. When I got to the side of the pool, the guards were there and we got her on the deck.
Then I went into ER doc mode. No time to think, just act. Establishing a clear air passage and making¬†sure she could breathe were¬†essential. I turned her on her side, making sure that she did not bite her tongue or, worse yet, swallow it. I also told the guards to call 911 (someone has to actually say this ‚Äî never assume). I could hear her struggling to breathe but still passing air. Since she was still seizing, I did what I could to just keep her airway open. They brought some oxygen over and I was able to put under her nose, all while making sure she did not swallow her tongue.
I attended to her for the next 10 to 15 minutes until the paramedics came and I filled them in. She slowly but surely started to come around. Finally she eventually spoke; very slowly and hesitantly but otherwise appeared to be OK¬†except that she was post-ictal (fatigued, disoriented post-seizure state). Of course, they took her to the emergency room to be checked out. I did ask them if they could bring her to Saint¬†John’s hospital, which is right across the street from my office.
I called the ER doc shortly thereafter and he said she was resting fine.
He said she was extremely lucky that an experienced swimmer and doc was there for her. One major gulp of water at 10 feet down could have been disastrous.
Now it is 2 p.m., and I just came back from seeing her in the ER and she is being released. Her friends are picking her up.
She had no idea of what happened, so I filled her in.
She was stunned and extremely thankful. I gave her my card and told her to call me if she needed anything.
I can’t tell you how grateful and honored I was that I was there at that time. I have had a lot of near-death and death experiences pass in front of me with all my medical experience and other life experiences, but none where if I was not there immediately, the results could have been disastrous.
She was in the worst place she could be: in the middle of the pool and 25 meters away from either of the lifeguards.
It would have been at least another 30 to 60 seconds or more before anyone even noticed her or was even able to get her.
So this is a very, very happy ending to what could have been fatal.¬†I am very thankful that I was able to do what I did this morning.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.¬†And a big thanks to mom and dad for all those darn swim lessons!
Peter A. Fields is a Santa Monica medical physician, chiropractor and resident.