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Your Health Matters: Increase drowning awareness

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A grant Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital received is allowing the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project to educate people on how to survive a drowning.

"It's a marathon to get out," says co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Dave Benjamin.

That's how he describes drowning. He would know because he in December of 2010, Benjamin almost lost his life in Lake Michigan.

"I was surfing in Lake Michigan in Portage, Indiana. Ice flow was starting to come in the surf zone. I was pretty close to the rock wall and I'm choking on water," says Benjamin.

An experienced swimmer who grew up on Lake Michigan and even lived in California for two years surfing the ocean, Benjamin was instantly faced with life or death.

"It's instant fear. I'm in this complete panic, holding my breath thinking I'm not going to make it out of here. The more I struggle, I'm not going to make it," says Benjamin.

For about 40-minutes, Benjamin struggled for his life and eventually made it out. That near death moment prompted him to start the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. It's an organization that tracks drownings in the Great Lakes and works to educate people on how to survive a drowning.

"I had this belief that I knew how to swim, there's no way I can drown. The reality is 66% of all drowning victims are good swimmers. Something is missing," says Benjamin.

To help combat the missing link, Barb Smith, a registered nurse and trauma program coordinator with Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort stepped up. She wrote a grant about a year ago for injury prevention for Benzie County and was able to get the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project to come in and speak with students, community members and even first responders about drownings.

"The most dangerous of the Great Lakes, about half the drownings happen on Lake Michigan. So, those stats alone told us it was important to work on water safety," says Smith.

Working with trauma patients, Smith sees the worst of the worst and knows all too well accidents can be prevented.

"Education is very key. What we see in the er so many we see are preventable," says Smith.

"What we advocate is flip, float and follow. Flip on your back to float, float to conserve energy and float to calm yourself down. Then follow the safest path out of water. Emphasis is on floating," says Benjamin.

It's a technique Benjamin stresses during his presentations and explains why everyone needs to know this.

"Reality is drowning can happen to anyone. We don't want to scare people out of the water we just want people to enjoy it safely and really understand it. Float to keep head above water, float to conserve energy and float to calm down. Then follow the safest path out of the water," says Benjamin.

Benjamin says the drownings in the Great Lakes are just the tip of the iceberg of what he calls a nation-wide drowning epidemic since there's currently no funding for drowning programs in the school systems. That's why the grant through Paul Oliver allowed the organization to do a full week of presentations with elementary, middle and high school students in Benzie County.

For more information about Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project click here.

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