“Oh, God, bring him back. I shall keep asking you.”
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
In my 30-year career, I have attended a number of conferences for aquatic professionals. We often gather to share our expertise about operations, programs, training, budgets, and more. We learn from each other, and pat ourselves on the backs for jobs well done. Last week, I was humbled and honored to attend the annual conference of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, having been named the 2018 Lifesaver of the Year. I was there because I won something. Many others were there because they lost something.
This conference moved me more than any other. It was the first where I felt like I “touched the product”. Or more accurately, where I engaged with families for whom our products—our equipment, education, or employees—failed or were absent. Gates missing or broken. Vests worn improperly or not at all. Lifeguards lagging on the job, or not assigned to certain hours or locations despite the popularity of swimming.
Often, the results of these lapses were death. And the stories are horrifying. They contain words like “missing” and “eviscerated” and “attempts at resuscitation”. These families now have a lifetime membership in a large and (sadly) growing club that no one wants to join. According to the CDC, roughly 3,500 people drown in non-boating accidents per year. By my calculation, just of the people I met, from the man who lost his daughter in a pool in1982, to the woman who lost her son in a lake in 2016, there were an estimated 120,000 lives lost in between, and another 7,000 since. All once members of families now interrupted and changed forever.
The National Drowning Prevention Alliance, more than any other group, supports innovation in water safety. It doesn’t matter if an organization is public or private, for profit or not, global or local. Because the members of Families United to Prevent Drowning would do anything—ANYTHING—to bring him/her/them back. And since their everyday reality is that they can’t, they work to ensure that no other family has to endure this tragedy. When it would be so easy to choose isolation in the anger and pain of their grief, they’ve instead chosen engagement—with service providers and educators and vendors and one another.
Many of us settle into our aquatic careers and think we’re doing enough, but if drowning persists, then we’re not. We can all do more. Please, do more. I shall keep asking you.
Not one more drowning. Ever.