My Fear of Shark Attacks

Published in the Huffington Post

Jaws scarred me for life. What’s scarier than a water-based horror movie with sharks? We can’t see what is lurking beneath, and we certainly can’t move as quickly as those predators. We don’t have a chance!

As a result, I’ve never liked going into the ocean, and that sentiment has intensified this summer. In North Carolina, there were eight shark attacks in one month. Now the beaches in New Jersey and Massachusetts are seeing sharks too! So, “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,” it’s not. Or, is it?

Let’s try to forget about Jaws for a minute (impossible, right)! Seriously, what are the real risks we, but more importantly, our children face in the water?

The odds of being attacked by a shark are one in 11.5 million. In fact, there are only about 65 shark attacks worldwide, and only a handful are fatal.

When you compare that to drownings, where over 800 children ages 14 die every year, the shark doesn’t seem like such a huge threat. The number of drownings grows exponentially when you factor in people of all ages.

Swimming is dangerous. That’s why we recommend swimming lessons, install fences around pools, and require lifeguards to be on duty. But, just like in the movie Jaws, the water may just be the setting of these tragedies, not the cause of death.

After my son, Simon, died from an undetected heart condition and it was initially ruled a SIDS death, I realized that we may be paying too much attention to the setting of death. We need to focus more on the cause, particularly when it is involves water.

About two weeks ago, a family from my community almost lost their son in a drowning accident. Fortunately, he survived and was quickly diagnosed with a condition called Long QT Syndrome (LQTS). Long QT is an arrhythmia that causes the heart to beat irregularly. As a result, the person is susceptible to cardiac arrest in certain scenarios like swimming, competitive sports and startling events.

Long QT is the condition that took the life of Simon. I have it too.

A few years ago, a family lost their toddler in a drowning accident. About a year later, the family lost their newborn to SIDS. After the second tragedy, they discovered that LQTS ran in the family and was the probably cause of death of both children.

Another family I met lost their son during swimming practice. He collapsed and died on the pool deck after finishing some laps. He was not in the water when he died, but his death certificate said that he drowned. The family believes that it was heart-related.

The heart is a funny thing. If it is not working properly, our children can’t swim, drive or play sports. If a child is swimming and suffers from cardiac arrest, he drowns. If she is driving, she crashes. If he is playing sports, he collapses.

Most of the time, we blame the activity nstead of the underlying and undetected heart condition. Why? Because, we really don’t know anything about our kids’ hearts. We don’t test them. We also don’t have standards in place for post mortem examinations of our children.

As parents, there are three things that we can do to make sure that our kids are safer in the pool and on the playing fields.

Screen Their HeartsResearch shows that an EKG exam coupled with a physical is the best way to detect heart conditions. In a country where most students receive sight, hearing and scoliosis screenings in school, we should screen their hearts too. There are groups across the country that provide this service. My organization, Simon’s Fund, is one of them and many more can be found on Screen Across America.

Watch for Warning Signs. The underlying heart conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest have warning signs: (1) fainting or seizures during exercise; (2) unusually rapid heard rate (“racing heart”); (3) extreme fatigue; (4) unexplained shortness of breath; (5) dizzines; (6) chest pains and (7) the sudden and unexplained death of a family member under the age of 50.

Track the Cause. The heart can present challenges when it comes to determining the cause of death. A structural heart condition, like cardiomyopathy, can be easily revealed because the heart doesn’t look right. However, electrical heart conditions, like LQTS, disappear when the heart stops beating. As such we need to rely on things like family history and genetic testing. The CDC and NIH recently launched the Sudden Death in the Young Case Registry to help determine how many children die from cardiac arrest. Ten states will collect comprehensive data on all sudden and unexplained deaths of children under the age of 19.

You would never send your child into the ocean if you saw a shark. You would never send your child into a pool if you saw lightning. Let’s treat our kids’ hearts with the same sense of caution and urgency because the real threat to our kids may not be found in the water or sky. It is likely hiding in their chest.

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