Rhonda Milner's 25-year-old son, Whitner, was swimming with friends and practicing holding his breath in his backyard pool when he died of a condition known as Shallow Water Blackout (SWB).
He had been practicing for a special spearfishing trip to the Bahamas in which the swimmers were required to hold their breath for three minutes.
"When everyone decided to get out of the pool, he stayed in and did one more last breath hold," Milner said. "It was dark and late, and no one noticed Whitner still on the bottom."
When Rhonda went to turn off the pool lights the next evening, she saw Whitner laying on the bottom of the pool. Initially, she thought he was just practicing his breathing exercises.
"I sort of splashed at the water and he didn't move," Milner said.
Then she attempted to rescue him.
"That's when I jumped in to try to pull him up out of the water," she recalled.
He was so waterlogged, she was unable to move him.
Most victims of SWB have two things in common: they are healthy and strong swimmers.
John Kirk is the co-owner of the Little Otter Swim School, a children's swim school located in Charlotte, NC. He is also a member of the U.S. Swim School Association.
"This may be the leading cause of death among strong swimmers," Kirk pointed out to America Now's Casey Roman.
Without providing any warning of distress to anyone who might be around, a swimmer can die in less than two minutes.
There are numerous ways SWB can occur. It could result from children or adults playing breath-holding games under the water, swimmers competing by swimming underwater side to side, or more commonly, intentionally hyperventilating in order to take in more air to stay under the water longer.
The problem is that you can't quickly store all that extra oxygen in your blood.
All you have actually done is blown off large amounts of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).
Carbon Dioxide gas is critical to your survival because the increase in CO2 levels, not oxygen, is what triggers your brain to know its time to come up for air.
Because all that exhaling has lowered the CO2 level while the body's oxygen drops, the swimmer passes out and the urgent need to breathe never happens.
"Eventually, you're just running on an empty tank and the body just checks out," Kirk said.
Life guards may be unlikely to spot the distressed swimmer under water because of surface glares and ripples. Meanwhile, the unconscious swimmer instinctively takes a breath.
"But it's going to be a lung full of water, and you're going to drown almost immediately," Kirk said.
SWB is never listed on an autopsy. If someone didn't see exactly what happened, the cause of death is usually labeled drowning.
Experts say the message here is clear and non-negotiable.
"Breath-holding games should never be practiced, it is very dangerous," Rhonda Milner warned.
That goes for poolside hyperventilating, and long underwater swims as well.
For swimmers who are training for deep water or free divers, Milner advised, "The only safe way to do that is if you're just continuously monitored by someone."
The challenge of trying to spend just a little more time underwater, can lead to a heartbreaking legacy of dying for air.
Copyright 2013 America Now. All rights reserved.
The following information is from Shallow Water Blackout Prevention (Source: http://shallowwaterblackoutprevention.org/).
The following information is from the Aquatic Safety Group (Source: http://www.aquaticsafetygroup.com/ShallowWaterBlackout.html).
The following information is from AthleticBusiness.com (Source: http://www.athleticbusiness.com/editors/blog/default.aspx?id=608).
The following information is from the CultureOfSafety.com (Source: http://www.cultureofsafety.com/aquatics/shallow-water-blackout/).
The following information is from the U.S. Navy (Source: http://www.public.navy.mil/navsafecen/Documents/media/seashore/seasonal/SeaShoreWinter09-10.pdf).
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