How to Save a Life
Swim lessons and medical training paid off for a seizure victim at the pool one morning
By Dr. Peter A. Fields
My whole life I’ve been involved swimming: swim teams from age six to college, many years as a lifeguard, teaching swimming and earning Red Cross water safety instructor certification.
A lifetime in the water and all my years of medical training, especially the emergency room work, came to fruition the morning of July 7.
During my morning swim workout at Santa Monica College’s 50-meter outdoor pool, I was coming up on about the 25-meter mark when I saw someone at the bottom of the pool. This is not so unusual, as many people occasionally dive to the bottom and spring up or sometimes swim around a little underwater before they do.
But after my second stroke in passing her, I sensed something wasn’t right. Call it my sixth sense. Then I saw her hand twitch a little, and I immediately knew something was very wrong.
Instinctively, I dove to the bottom of the pool (about 10 feet) and grabbed her. She was frozen like a solid block — symptomatic of a seizure.
I knew I had to get her up to the surface immediately, but this was not easy. 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 and signaled the lifeguards. Then, with my lifeguard experience, I was able to get her to the side of the pool with her mouth facing up. The guards were there and we got her up on the deck.
Then I went into ER doc mode. No time to think, just act: establish a clear air passage so she could breathe. 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 — never assume.
I could hear the woman 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 it under her nose, all the while making sure she did not swallow her tongue.
I attended to her for the next 15 minutes or so until the paramedics arrived. Slowly but surely, she started to come around. Finally she spoke; very slowly and hesitantly, but otherwise OK except that she was post-ictal (a fatigued, disoriented, post-seizure state). The paramedics then took her to the ER to be checked out.
I called the ER doc shortly thereafter and he said she was resting fine and extremely lucky. One major gulp of water at 10 feet down could have been disastrous. As of this writing, I’ve just come back from seeing her and she is about to be released. She had no recollection of what happened.
I can’t tell you how grateful and honored I was to be there at the exact right time. I have had a lot of near-death experiences pass in front of me, but none that could have been so disastrous if I hadn’t been right there at the scene so immediately.
This is a very happy ending to what could have been fatal.
Thank you, Mom and Dad, for all those darn swim lessons!
Dr. Peter A Fields, a.k.a. The Athlete Doc, is a 5X Iron Man triathlete who practices medicine at the Pacific Prolotherapy & Medical Wellness Center in Santa Monica. Contact him at drfields.com.