Connie in the Water

Diagnosis: Other

I am floating face down, having managed not to panic after having fallen down a six-foot embankment into the river. I am reveling at the thought that I have remained relaxed, but I am also thinking “what do I do now”. I am waiting for a sign that I am on top of the water, but I still have my eyes closed and am totally unaware that I have been on top of the water all along. Before I begin to run out of air, may husband has climbed down the embankment, entered the four foot of water, and lifted me up out of the water.

After several minutes of holding onto him while he is standing in the river, we climb up the embankment and follow the narrow path back out of the woods to our car, soaking wet of course. It is then that we realize I no longer have my hat, my two walking sticks, and my eyeglasses. Then we realize we both had our cell phones and key fob in our pockets when we went into the water. Fortunately, we still had them, but the phones no longer worked properly even after submerging them in rice. The good news was I did not drown, and the lost items were replaceable. The bad news was I was somewhat traumatized by the experience, realizing I did not have a clue what I should have done to avoid drowning.

When I was finally diagnosed with profound bilateral vestibular loss, several years after its onset 30 years ago, the doctor informed me not to dive in water as I would not know what was up or down. That explained an episode I had had earlier of jumping into a lake (fortunately with a life jacket on) and becoming totally disoriented and panic-stricken. Not wanting to give up water experiences, with my husband’s help, I jumped into a swimming pool over and over until I was finally able to relax and float to the top without panicking. We did not deal with what came after I float to the top. The relaxing part stayed with me, fortunately, but after the river experience, I wanted to know what to do to save myself and not be dependent on someone rescuing me. I’m certain I would have drowned if my husband had not picked me up out of the water.

Three months after my river episode, we sought an aqua physical therapist’s help in dealing with what comes after floating to the top of the water. Within three one-hour sessions, she taught me to relax and float to the top flexing my hands up where I can feel the change in temperature and dryness signaling that I am at the top of the water. At this point I roll over to my back and, staying relatively still, can float on my back for a very long time being able to breathe. This is called a self-rescue method.

Connie floating in the water

If need be, I can then do what she refers to as a “safety swim”. With my arms at my sides, I bring my hands slowly up to my armpits and slowly extend my arms out at a 90-degree angle on top of the water. Then I bring my arms back down to my sides having created a glide across the water. I enjoy the glide and then repeat this stroke to glide again. There are no sudden movements or turning with this stroke and no holding my breath. With my eyes open, I can remain relatively oriented. Another way to describe it is “chicken, airplane, soldier”.

She had also made the comment that if needing to be rescued, (such as falling overboard), a whole body floating is more easily seen in water than just one’s head as when treading water. Also, floating does not tire you out like treading water will. She even had me use blacked-out goggles so that I could not see and do this maneuver. I was able to do it but was not comfortable as so much of my balance and orientation is dependent on vision.

I am much more confident and less afraid of the water now after she worked with me. I intend to practice this maneuver more with someone there in a pool with me to make it become an automatic instinct and relieve my nervousness further.

I am grateful for the physical therapist. At the time of my therapy, she was taking a class on vestibular therapy. Most of her knowledge concerning the water issues came from teaching survival swimming classes and being a lifeguard. She teaches this maneuver to her kids and adults before actually teaching swimming.

I am not sure that aquatic therapy is included in vestibular rehab therapy. I think it should be addressed, especially for those vestibular-challenged individuals that live near water or, like me, enjoy the occasional water experience.

By Connie Monroe
September 7, 2019