According to the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation and the North American Spine Society, 90 percent of all diving injuries cause a spinal-cord injury and result in paralysis, specifically quadriplegia. Television and film actress Brooke Burns was in the lucky 10 percent, narrowly avoiding paralysis after sustaining a diving injury last November. Burns misjudged the depth while diving into her backyard swimming pool and hit the bottom, resulting in a broken neck – a near fatal injury.
The 28-year-old actress and mother credits her friend, a paramedic fireman, for saving her life by immobilizing her and floating her in the pool until additional paramedics arrived. Burns underwent extensive surgery, and has since made a full recovery.
"If anyone else had tried to move me, I would have been paralyzed," she explains. "I feel like I have been given a second chance. I want to help others 'think first' before diving into a pool or lake to prevent these types of life-changing accidents. I know I'm in a very fortunate minority, and hope my story inspires both adults and children to be more careful."
Nearly 1,000 spinal-cord injuries occur each year in the United States when persons, predominantly males aged 15 to 25, dive into swimming pools or natural bodies of water. The vast majority of diving injuries occur in six feet of water or less.
Burns has teamed up with ThinkFirst and NASS to raise awareness and helped develop tips for for injury prevention:
• Always know the depth of water before you swim or dive. When in doubt, test the water by wading or walking in feet first. Remember "feet first, first time."
• Don't dive into shallow, open water. Three out of four diving injuries happen in lakes, rivers, oceans and other natural bodies of water. Be aware that water depths are affected by tides, droughts, floods, etc.
• Never swim or dive alone; always do it with a buddy. Burns avoided catastrophic injury because a friend was nearby and called for medical help.
• Never dive into an aboveground pool or into the shallow end of a pool. Water should be at least 12 feet deep for safe diving from the side of a pool or deck.
• Don't dive from rooftops, balconies, ledges, fences, retaining walls, ladders, slides or other pool equipment. To dive safely, hold your head and arms up, and steer with your hands. Keep your arms extended over your head during the dive.
• Don't dive off the side of a diving board – dive straight ahead and test the diving board for its spring before using.
• Don't drink and dive: Half of all serious diving incidents occur when the diver has been drinking. Diving requires clear thinking to judge distance and depth, monitor speed and direction, and coordinate body movements.
• Always make sure children are supervised by an adult while diving and swimming.
• If you suspect that someone has sustained a spinal-cord injury from a shallow water dive, contact 911 immediately. Approach the victim carefully. Hold the victim's head in alignment with his or her back, and gently turn them onto their back so they can breathe.
• If possible, have others assist you. Keep the victim's head and back stabilized and support them with something sturdy (pool equipment, ring buoy, oar). Most important, do not move a diving victim from the water until the emergency medical team arrives, as movement can cause further damage to the spinal cord.
For more information, log on to: www.thinkfirst.org.
This column was prepared in cooperation with ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation and the North American Spine Society.