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Dr. Linda Quan and Elizabeth Bennett put Seattle Children’s at the center of efforts to prevent open-water drowning deaths.

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Swimming pools are where people learn
how to be safe in water environments
say drowning experts Dr. Linda Quan (left)
and Elizabeth Bennett.

Dr. Linda Quan first became interested in drowning prevention when she was a resident in the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center. A 3-year-old girl who fell into an apartment pool was brought to emergency after being revived at the scene. Quan wondered two things — how did the girl survive, but also, why did she fall into the pool in the first place?

That was more than 30 years ago and Quan has focused on water safety ever since. She and longtime collaborator Elizabeth Bennett combine research, outreach and advocacy to stop drowning. Their efforts to understand the problems and find solutions have made them widely recognized leaders in drowning prevention, with a special emphasis on open water such as lakes and rivers.

Drowning in open water is a particular danger in Washington state and other places that have easy access to open water — especially among teenagers. Quan’s research helped define the problem by showing that in King County, teens 15 to 19 were at greater risk of drowning than any age group besides preschoolers, and that drowning in lakes and rivers posed the greatest risk to those teens.

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Seattle Children’s, in partnership with the Washington State Department of Health, a grant to create a policy plan for open-water drowning prevention for children and teens in Washington state. In addition, Quan and Bennett are co-chairing an international task force that’s developing open-water drowning prevention messages for use throughout the world.

Research drives the strategies

Drowning 220x130In every case, research drives the strategies Quan and Bennett develop and share through local, national and international partnerships. “The reasons a 4-year-old drowns are different than the reasons a 14-year-old drowns,” says Bennett, who directs guest services, partnerships and advocacy at Children’s “You have to tailor your message according to the developmental level of the child as well as the knowledge, beliefs and behaviors of their parents.”

For example, a study based on statistics from the state’s Department of Health showed a higher rate of drowning among Asian children than African-Americans and whites. Quan and Bennett conducted focus groups with Vietnamese teens and parents — all immigrants — to explore the reasons. They discovered a strong belief among Vietnamese that drowning was attributable to fate, but they also learned that providing information about water safety and offering low-cost courses on water skills in Vietnamese might make a difference.

Quan and Bennett have approached drowning prevention from a variety of angles, studying how best to collect drowning data, helping pass a state law requiring children younger than 13 to wear life jackets in small boats, and assisting local, national and international organizations such as the American Red Cross, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and the National Safe Boating Council with their drowning prevention strategies.

“We’re passionate about drowning prevention because these deaths are so preventable,” says Quan, emergency services attending at Seattle Children’s and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Advocating for better data reporting

The lack of routinely reported details about drowning deaths is a constant challenge for Quan and Bennett. Before Quan could even start to study drowning, she had to create her own database of pediatric drownings in King County. Quan and Bennett are currently pushing for a statewide reporting system for drowning deaths. Right now, the facts they need — was the person wearing a life jacket, were lifeguards present, did the person ever take swimming lessons? — are dispersed, if they are collected at all.

“This information is hard to find,” Bennett says, “but understanding drowning risk and effective prevention strategies is key to saving lives.”