Summer Safety Advice from an Emergency Room Physician

This past weekend marks the official start of summer. Many schools are out for vacation until late August,  which means more unstructured time for children in a variety of outdoor activities. I recently spoke with Dr. Gita Pensa, an Emergency Room Physician in Rhode Island and mother of three, on what she focuses on regarding summer safety. As an ER physician, she takes care of emergencies of all kinds, from the benign to the severe. I was curious, how does an ER physician balance summer safety knowing all of the potential risks and manage to still have fun?

I had a chance to talk with Dr. Pensa about her thoughts on summer safety. If you would like to read her article recently published with The Newport Daily News called Health Matters: Be Smart and Have a Safe Summer, please go here.

Dr. Pensa, your article in the Newport Daily News provides fantastic advice on summer safety. What is the most important safety issue for you as a mom?

I think all of the tips are important. My personal focus is vigilance and safety around the water, especially with children. Whenever I am with my children in and near the water whether pool or beach, my husband will tell you; one of us must have our eyes on the children swimming. Part of my problem is that I have seen children who have drowned or had near drowning experiences. What I have learned from these scary and sometimes tragic events, is how fast drowning can happen. The other parts many people don’t think about is that most drowning is quiet and/or silent. When drowning is portrayed in television and movies, people are flailing their arms around and yelling in an attempt to get noticed. That doesn’t happen. Children who can’t swim well may work hard just to get their nose above water, and they can’t yell. So often, a child who is struggling in the water will just sink quietly.

Swimming accidents can happen even in the places you wouldn’t expect. My youngest daughter almost drowned in a swimming lesson. I was at the pool, watching her lesson and noticed the instructor turned her back for a moment to help another child who was screaming and crying. My daughter and the other students were holding onto the wall, and my daughter was not listening to the instructions to hold on. She let go. She couldn’t swim at all, and I gave her a second to see if she could swim up. She couldn’t, and I had to fish her out of the pool myself. The teacher didn’t even turn around until she was out of the water, gasping and coughing. That’s how fast it happened.

A very frightening parenting moment, especially having it happen at a swim lesson! Following your own rule of having your eyes on your own child when she was in the water applied in this situation.

It was truly terrifying to watch my own child slip under the water so quietly and helplessly. I lost a lot of sleep over that. I can only thank my lucky stars that I was watching, but mothers know they can’t be everywhere all the time, even though we’d like to be. It’s hard for me to hand that vigilance over to someone else now.

In your experience, what would you say is the most overlooked safety issue for kids during the summer?

file8851295912179Trampolines and bikes cause many summer injuries. Trampolines by far are a big safety concern. Trampoline injuries are responsible for over 90,000 emergency room visits every year. Parents and caregivers need to know that trampolines have the potential for serious injuries, spinal injuries and head injuries. Furthermore, the net around the trampoline is not protective. Many people think nets will prevent a child from falling off, which may be true, but most of the injuries on a trampoline are from children landing on each other, or from children doing something unsafe on a trampoline that causes them to land on their head or neck. The most important safety precaution is to limit the number of children on a trampoline at one time and have them jump far away from one another; the more children, the more the risk of injury.

Regarding bikes, obviously, people must wear a helmet, and of course, speed is a factor in the severity of injuries in crashes. The faster you are riding, the more potential for serious injury and accident. Always wear a helmet, caution kids to ride at a safe and controllable speed, and reduce their distractions such as listening to music or talking on the phone. You want them to be focused on the road or trail and especially any cars and traffic.

Very good advice Dr. Pensa! Many people spend time at the beach in the summer. What advice and safety suggestions would you provide to those heading to the beach?

Be careful digging in the sand. While not a common event, digging deep holes or tunnels in the sand can increase the potential for the sand holes collapsing. Collapsing sand holes or tunnels kill more people than shark attacks. Many people worry about the danger of shark attacks, when, in fact, creating deep sand holes is more dangerous. The problem with digging sand holes is that the hole can collapse instantly. And when it collapses, there is no air, the victim is very difficult to find and dig out, and they can suffocate quickly. The recommendation is not to dig holes any deeper than thigh high of the smallest person in your group. Make sure to educate your children and tell people about the risks and danger of digging in the sand.

file0001637437229After my article in The Newport Daily News came out, I had a friend tell me about how she was at the beach last year and came upon parents who had dug a large hole as a way to corral and contain their toddler. My friend went over and told the parents the dangers of the sand hole, and they had no idea of the risk. If the hole had collapsed, the child could easily have died. Remember to educate yourself and family and if you see people at the beach doing something unsafe, step up and say something.

I imagine some people may feel overwhelmed thinking about the dangers during the summer. I connect to your recommendations; don’t get overwhelmed by all of the risks, but rather use the recommendations you have outlined, such as do not dig in the sand deeper than thigh high of your youngest child. Such good advice. What skills do you teach your own children regarding safety?

I emphasize helmet use. At the pool or beach, the rule I have for my children about the water is you are not allowed to go in the water until you tell a parent, even if they are constantly going in and out of the water. Our family rule is that they have to tell one of us, before they go in the water, or whichever adult they are with. It is important to know where they are so one of us can be watching. And then there are other everyday summer routines, like of lots of sunscreen and nightly tick checks.

Thank you Dr. Pensa, I appreciate your perspective and recommendations, fantastic advice. Here’s to a restorative, safe and happy summer!

© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014

One thought on “Summer Safety Advice from an Emergency Room Physician

  1. Great article Claire! Thank you for reminding us about these dangers. Something can happen so quickly even when our children are good swimmers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *