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Drowning in Good Intentions

Heroism is a virtue, but how do we keep water rescuers from becoming victims themselves?

When it comes to sacrificing yourself in an attempt to prevent a drowning, Australians Joseph and Carole Sherry may be the ultimate examples.

In January 2010, two of the couple's three children, Elise, 14, and Nicholas, 9, were struggling in the surf at a beach south of Brisbane, according to a newspaper account, when Carole, 44, entered the water to help them and apparently got caught in a riptide. Seeing his wife in trouble, Joseph, 42, tried to save her. Instead, both drowned as Elise and Nicholas and their older sister, all now safely on shore, watched in horror.

It is a pattern that is all too familiar to Richard C. Franklin, senior research fellow at the Royal Lifesaving Society in Australia, and to John H. Pearn, a senior pediatrician at Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. The Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, with large populations near the water, account for six out of 10 drownings. And Franklin, in emails, says that his and Pearn's investigations show that at least 86 potential rescuers "drowned for love" in Australian waters between 1992 to 2007.

In articles in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health and the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, Franklin and Pearn described what they call the "aquatic victim-instead-of-rescuer syndrome," in which the initial victim survives but the primary rescuer, usually a male relative or a bystander, drowns.

Drowning deserves more respect as an accidental killer and is second only to auto accidents, says the World Health Organization. In recognizing its hazard to untrained rescuers, water-safety researchers have been trying to inject an analytical element into a potential rescuer's thoughts during what is likely a hair-trigger decision. Quick rescues, to be sure, are vital to restoring breathing to drowning victims in time to prevent brain damage. What empathetic human wouldn't feel an adrenaline surge as they envision coming to a victim's aid? The challenge: how to clamp down on that instinct without counseling cowardice.

One obstacle is the steady stream of rescue stories valorizing self-sacrifice.

On June 11, for example, England’s South Yorkshire Times hailed the bravery of "quick-thinking Cory Challinor," 13, who "instinctively dived into" a village pond at an old quarry to save a "panicking pal struggling to breathe." Cory put the friend on his shoulder and dragged him to safety, the newspaper said.

That same day, the Brockton, Mass. Enterprise reported that 18-year-old Raphael Perez was trying to help one of his friends who was struggling in a pond in Plymouth, Mass. In this case, Perez faltered and drowned. "He always put everyone else before himself," said his sister, Monica.

There's plenty of scope for heroics: during the drought and heat wave in the U.S. Midwest this summer, several dozen more people drowned as more Midwesterners tried to beat the heat by heading to the water.

Communicating the risks of rescue requires overcoming media that regularly glorify heroic risk-taking and self-sacrifice. Put another way, people don't make local headlines by throwing someone a life preserver or running to get help.

But to Franklin and Pearn, having untrained rescuers going into the water "is really a last resort, and it should be an informed decision about the risks (this is the tough part)." And yes, that may mean relying on easy if less macho measures, including throwing flotation rings or reaching potential victims from safe places.

Meanwhile, the U.S. water safety establishment sends a mixed message about untrained rescues, not always abiding by the slogan, "Reach, Throw, Don’t Go."

While the YMCA and the American Red Cross pointedly warn anyone without training not to attempt a water rescue without safety equipment, the United States Lifesaving Association—the association of beach lifeguards and open-water rescuers and a source of much valuable information on water safety—sponsors a program honoring trained or untrained water rescuers who have risked their lives to save someone.

"We absolutely do not recommend people put themselves in danger or a situation where a rescuer can become a victim," says Tom Gill, the media representative for USLA, but "people are going to make heroic acts. There's always somebody who, during a robbery, will tackle a gunman; it's not the safest or the smartest—but people do it.”

Francesco Pia, a water-safety consultant based in Larchmont, N.Y., agrees, saying parents will always likely try to save a child.

But Brendan Donohoe, director of the Lifesaving Foundation in Dublin, suggests a 10-step protocol for untrained rescuers that gives them the option to give up. The steps include the rescuer shouting for help and quickly describing their rescue plan to emergency-service personnel, presumably by phone, or someone reliable on the scene who, in theory, may say it's too dangerous to try.

Injecting rationality into impulse-driven heroism is one thing; drawing the difference between teamwork and selflessness is another. Two neurobiology researchers, Elise Nowbahari and Karen L. Hollis, are trying to distinguish between human rescue altruism and simple cooperation among members of the same species. They write that altruism requires that the victim is in distress, the rescuer places themself at risk, and that the rescuer receives no benefit.

Is public recognition a benefit? Even in the form of a flattering obituary?

That's what 25-year-old Christopher Heaton earned earlier this year.

The father of two small boys, Heaton was on his way to meet his girlfriend one night last February when he spotted her car sinking into the Tennessee River near Bridgeport, Ala. A child's seat in the car may have made him believe there was a child inside with his girlfriend, according to a death notice published by the family.

Police found Heaton's body five hours later at the river bottom not far from the boat ramp where he was to meet his girlfriend. At the time Heaton jumped into the water, she was already safely on shore, but Heaton hadn't seen her.

For their part, Nowbahari and Hollis say recognition isn't a reward—but it may be a carrot. "In the case of rescue behavior in humans," they write, "rewarding highly visible examples of rescue behavior certainly encourages heroism in the culture ... However, there are many unsung heroes in our midst: Most instances of rescue behavior, like good teaching, go unrewarded—and yet the behavior persists."