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    Summer warning: Prolonged breath holds can cause shallow water blackouts
    • June 20, 2023

    The story of her husband’s tragic death isn’t easy to tell, but Michelle Brislen knows the dangers of shallow water blackouts are an important message to share – especially as summer break gets underway.

    “It was definitely part of my healing process. It still is,” Brislen, a San Clemente High School marine science teacher, said of sharing how her husband, Drew, died while he was out diving alone off Laguna Beach in 2011. “I felt it was so urgent, and I still feel that way. It’s so important.”

    That’s why Brislen visited to speak to the San Clemente Junior Lifeguards camp, to teach them of the dangers of shallow water blackouts, also known as underwater hypoxic blackouts, a silent killer of even the most experienced pool and ocean swimmers.

    Michelle Brislen, a marine science teacher at San Clemente High School, spoke to a group of junior lifeguards on June 15, 2023. (Photo by Laylan Connelly, SCNG/Orange County Register)

    “I don’t want to scare the kids,” Brislen said on a recent day following a presentation to the young guards. “But we also have to be aware of it, especially at the start of summer.”

    Brislen started doing lectures for local swim clubs, classes and junior guard programs just a year after her husband’s death, working with nonprofit Shallow Water Blackout Prevention to share the message.

    The blackouts can happen to anyone, even expert swimmers, snorkelers, spear fishermen or free divers. It can even happen to kids with friends at pools seeing who can stay down longest or get to the other side of the pool underwater the fastest.

    And it can happen in any body of water – the ocean, pools, lakes, rivers, even bathtubs.

    “For some, their lungs will take on water leading to drowning while others simply suffocate or die of other causes brought on by the breath holding,” the Shallow Water Blackout Prevention nonprofit warns.

    Unlike regular drowning, where there can be 6 to 8 minutes before brain damage and death, there are only about 2.5 minutes before brain damage, and then death, during a shallow water blackout because the brain has already been oxygen deprived.

    “People have unfortunately lost their lives in the water, some of them have lost their lives in pools, some of them have lost their lives in the ocean. We want those places to be really, really safe,” Brislen told the San Clemente Junior Lifeguards on a recent day. “It’s a fine line on when people blackout in the water and when you can be resuscitated.”

    Big-wave surfer Jay Moriarity, whose life was detailed in the film “Chasing Mavericks,” died while doing breath holds alone in the Maldives, Brislen told the young guards. “He was supposed to have a buddy in the water, but he didn’t that day for some reason.”

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    When people black out, their body will naturally take a gulp of air. But when that happens while underwater, drowning occurs. So it’s important to listen to your body and get to air when your body gives you the urge to breathe – and make sure you have enough time to get safely to the surface.

    “We don’t want to have a breath hold competition,” she told the youngsters. “That’s when we run the risk. We’re competing, we’re not listening to our bodies.”

    One student asked what she should do if a swim teacher tells her to go to the end of the pool without coming up for a breath.

    “When a coach says try your best to go to the end of the pool, try. But when your body says it’s time to breathe, then breathe,” she said. “And it’s a great opportunity to talk to your coach. We want people talking about it.”

    Another important tip: Always have a buddy with you when in the water.

    Junior lifeguard instructor Jaden Hall said as a lobster diver, he’s aware of shallow water blackout dangers. While much of their lifeguarding lessons revolve around rip currents and waves, the shallow water blackout education is an important lesson to pass on to the young guards-in-training, he said.

    “This is huge for us, our biggest thing is education for kids,” he said.

    It’s important to build confidence in the kids, he added, but also make sure they are aware of risks.

    “It’s more common than people know,” he said. “Never push yourself too far.”

    More information:

    ​ Orange County Register