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Don’t dive into a life-changing injury: Use common sense to stay safe in pools and lakes

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Dr. Charles Tator“My boyfriend picked me up and threw me in the pool. I floated to the surface face down and was drowning before he rolled me over and saved my life – but he broke my spinal cord.”

“I had never been on that dock before, and it went so far out into the water. How was I supposed to know that at the end of the dock the water was less than one metre deep.”

As a brain and spinal surgeon, I have mixed feelings when the warm weather finally arrives in Canada. On the one hand, I love summer sports and recreational activities and look forward to swimming and canoeing. On the other hand, I dread summer’s toll of broken necks from shallow-water diving. Usually it’s a teenager or someone in their twenties, and in less than a second, their neck or spinal cord is broken, and the aftermath of a careless mistake ripples for a lifetime.

Even though medical science has improved since I began neurosurgery more than 40 years ago, we still can not make the arms and legs move again after such injuries. However, we have learned who is likely to make the mistake of not knowing what they are diving into, and prevention can cure this problem.

We know these injuries happen to young people with judgment impaired due to alcohol or drugs. After a few drinks or puffs with friends on a hot summer night, they feel the irresistible desire to cool off in the pool or lake. Alcohol impairs caution and memory, and I have seen many examples of this in my practice.

For instance, a no-water dive that broke a patient’s neck because he had forgotten his dad had emptied the water from the pool the night before to clean it. Another hit a log that moved during the off-season into what was the favourite diving spot “we always dove from.” In another case, it was a show-off dive from the top of the garage next door into the pool. Only drugs and alcohol could tempt the mind into doing that one.

Alcohol and drugs impair the judgment, awareness and common sense needed to follow safety measures when diving. They are the biggest reason for diving related injuries.

With the Life Saving Society and the Red Cross, injury prevention organizations such as Parachute Canada (formerly ThinkFirst) have developed great resources for reminding children, youth and young adults about how to dive safely. Trained divers almost never break their necks and know better than to cloud their judgment at the pool or lake with alcohol or drugs.

Everyone enjoys a refreshing swim on a hot day and there are tips you can follow to do this safely. A good general rule is the water should be twice your height in depth for a safe dive if you don’t know how to do a proper shallow-water dive.

If you’re visiting an unfamiliar lake or body of water, remember to “walk in before you dive in.” Get a sense of the depth of the water and whether there are any obstructions you can’t see from the surface that could injure you.

If you haven’t checked the water first, follow “feet first, first time” and jump in before you dive in. You may break something, but you won’t break your neck.

The summer months are short. Let’s make sure to enjoy them fully but safely as well.

By: Dr. Charles Tator

Dr. Charles Tator is a neurosurgeon at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre of Toronto Western Hospital. He is also the founder of ThinkFirst, now part of Parachute Canada, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of brain and spinal cord injuries, and the research lead for the Canadian Sports Concussion Project which is studying the long-term effects of repetitive concussions.

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

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