It was a hot August Friday in 2013 when Daniel Snider’s 17th birthday celebration with his family at Lake Pleasant near Peoria, Ariz., turned into a nightmare.
Daniel and his pals set out for a refreshing dip in the cool waters — but he never returned to shore alive. He suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned. While hanging onto a raft, friends said he suddenly tensed up, his head jerked downward and he slipped below the surface.
For reasons unknown to his family, Daniel had removed a life-jacket he had been wearing not long before that fateful incident.
Last summer, a New York City man suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned while swimming with friends in the Atlantic Ocean off the Jersey Shore. John Crimmins, 22, “suddenly disappeared,” said witnesses.
It’s tragedies such as these that the Epilepsy Association of Calgary and its Central Alberta office want to prevent by teaming up with the Alberta Lifesaving Society in its launch on Sunday of Drowning Prevention Week.
“For those who may not know, water safety is of utmost concern for anyone living with epilepsy, as most water-related incidents are preventable,” said spokesperson Kathy Fyfe.
The group’s website states: “For people with epilepsy, an accident can happen extremely quickly, so there are important things to be aware of.”
In Central Alberta, it’s estimated more than 3,500 people have epilepsy. A cool dip in Sylvan, Gull or Buffalo Lake is just as tempting to them as anybody else melting down from the hot spells of summer.
But those with epilepsy must also realize their cooling-off frolics in the water require special safety measures, the groups caution. First and foremost, always wear a life-jacket.
“I don’t know why or how, I don’t understand why he took his life-jacket off,” says Daniel’s mom, Stephanie Storm. “He was friendly to everybody, he didn’t care who you were or what you were about or what you did.” And he was taking his medication to control seizures.
Stephanie went public with her experience, hoping other families with epileptic members will learn from her story. Daniel worked at McDonald’s over the summer, and would have started high school three days after his death.
According to a study by the American Academy of Neurology, people with epilepsy have a 15 to 19 times higher risk of drowning than people in the general population. “It’s important that people with epilepsy and their caregivers take steps to prevent these tragedies,” the study urged, “and should have direct supervision when swimming.”
A study by the Institute of Neurology at the University College London, U.K., echoed those concerns. Study leader, professor Ley Sander, said he had two patients die from drowning this year alone.
“The numbers are relatively small, but the important thing is that these deaths are preventable,” said Sander. “We’re not saying that people (with epilepsy) shouldn’t swim, but that they need to be aware of the risk and to go with someone who can help if they have problems.”
The Alberta epilepsy group has published an Epilepsy Fact Sheet on water safety, available at http://www.epilepsycalgary.com/resources. Under the category Fact Sheets, click on Water Safety.
It is worth noting that there is one rare form of the condition called Photosensitive Epilepsy. Affecting less than five per cent of all epilepsy sufferers, seizures can be triggered by bright or flickering lights — and that can include lights reflecting off splashing water. Those who are photosensitive are urged to wear sunglasses when at the beach or lounging near water.
While lifeguards at public swimming pools, for the most part, are well trained in addressing seizure incidents, untrained members of the public are sometimes called upon to assist in cases at unsupervised waters.
In those cases, every second counts, just as it does when responding to any person in trouble in the water. Yell for help.
Approach the person while maintaining your own safety. Turn the person over if they are face down in the water and support their head until the seizure stops. Then bring the person to shore and call for medical assistance to ensure water has not been ingested into the lungs. Then consider yourself a hero — you just saved a life.
This summer, the epilepsy group, through its week-long awareness campaign, does not want to experience another Daniel Snider incident.
Ricky Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.