The dangers of swimming in Philadelphia’s creeks

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    A grieving Philadelphia mom wants to make sure everyone knows that swimming in the creeks isn’t just illegal — it’s dangerous. 

    Every summer as the temperatures rise, Philadelphians head in droves for the water: be it beach, pool, or creek. A grieving Philadelphia mom wants to make sure everyone knows that swimming in the creeks isn’t just illegal — it’s dangerous. 

    Shattered peace 

    Pennypack Creek’s bubbling waters run under a huge canopy of green trees. It’s beautiful and relaxing — a slice of nature. Kim Boyle grew-up around here in Northeast Philly and she fondly remembers coming here.

    “We had tire swings, you know, we would skip rocks in it. I mean we never really knew it to be deep. There was nobody tellin’ us not to.”

    That sense of peace was shattered last summer.

     “I spoke to a lot of friends’ parents and we were all like, ‘Wow we never knew.’ And I said, ‘Yeah neither did I.’ And it cost me my first born son,” said Boyle. “There he is.”

    Boyle choked back tears and pointed to a photo of her son, Brandon. It’s taped onto a small bridge. All along the bridge’s wooden railing were messages written in marker and the letters R.I.P.

    The 13 year old was here last summer with his brother and a few friends. After jumping off the short bridge, the water carried them downstream and over a little waterfall. Right now, the creek is relatively calm and you can see the rocks that sit under the waterfall. To call it a ‘waterfall,’ at least right now, seems like an exaggeration. But Boyle said after hard rain, the water looks totally different — almost more like whitewater rapids.

    “He was floating like backwards – his head toward the waterfall. And it flipped him over the waterfall,” she said. “He landed on one of the giant boulders down there and it pretty much – it landed him right on the side of his head. So the rock went through his skull, knocked him unconscious and then he went under.”

    The science of drowning 

    Just about every year someone drowns here or in one of the city’s other creeks: the Wissahickon, Cobb’s or Frankford.

    That’s troubling to Dr. James Callahan, the Associate Medical Director of the Emergency Department at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Callahan has treated dozens of children with submersion injuries. He said drowning can happen in different ways. The patient could aspirate water directly into the lungs:

    “So water goes down the windpipe and into the lungs itself, so the water blocks oxygen getting into the lungs that way,” he said. “Or the larynx, the covering over the top of the wind pipe can actually go into spasm and close off as the person is struggling in water …and they may lose oxygen that way.”

    Either way, he said the problem is called ‘hypoxia’ That is, not getting enough oxygen into your lungs and then not getting enough oxygen into your bloodstream.

    “So without enough oxygen, you’re not getting oxygen to your brain, to your heart. What would happen over a few minutes – over probably 5 to 7 minutes, at the longest, but maybe shorter than that – is your heart would actually stop beating.”

    Callahan’s standing in the resuscitation room. It’s almost like a mini-operating room. It’s pin-drop quiet. Three beds are lined up in a row to allow for a trio of simultaneous resuscitations. This is where critically ill kids who first arrive in the emergency department are brought — whether they’re suffering from drowning or another trauma. He said the space has all the equipment medical professionals need to start working on kids who are in medical trouble.

    “To start IVs, to do other major procedures that we might do at the bedside as well. There’s an overhead x-ray gantry that actually can do x-rays right here that then project on a large screen tv so the whole team can look at the x-ray at once.”

    Bathtubs, pools and parks 

    Callahan said drowning is a leading cause of accidental death for children aged one to four, often in swimming pools. For children under a year of age, he said, drownings most often happen in the bathtub. And for boys in their mid-teens to early 20s, the risk of drowning goes back up, Callahan said, and it’s typically in natural bodies of water.

    “Teenagers or young adults – often times alcohol or other substances may be involved or dare devil type activities may be involved.”

    A few minutes with a lack of oxygen, Callahan says, causes brain damage that’s often irreversible. He says learning CPR and administering it can spare a drowning victim from much more serious injury.

    Back at Pennypack Creek, Philadelphia Fire Department Lieutenant Andrew Brown is standing next to the water, holding a stack of pamphlets. They’re in English and in Spanish and they warn people that it’s dangerous and illegal to swim in the creeks. He said unfortunately:

    “There’s hardly a year I can remember that hasn’t had a drowning in one of Philadelphia’s creeks or streams.”

    Brown’s trips to Pennypack and the city’s other creeks are part of the Fire Department’s new drowning-prevention program called Operation Stay on Shore. He said often swimmers he warns say they had no idea they shouldn’t be in the water.

    “When I got out here there was a family swimming and I actually had the opportunity to speak with them a little and let them know that it’s a dangerous situation,” he said. 

    ‘Hey, you can die in that water’ 

    Kim Boyle said before her son died, she had no idea Pennypack Creek posed such a danger. She said she wants the city to do a better job keeping people out of the water by patrolling the creek’s banks at popular entry spots. The City’s office of Parks & Recreation says the city has warning signs up as well as rangers who patrol — but there’s a huge area to cover: the city has over 50 miles of waterfront and riverfront land. Kim Boyle isn’t satisfied.

    “The city was sayin’ ‘well we have signs.’ Let me tell you something, and I’ll show you the sign, it’s about 10 feet in the air and unless you walk like this, you’re not going to see it. When you’re 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 – you don’t care. You’re not readin’ signs.”

    Boyle said everybody thinks this sort of thing couldn’t happen to them. She’s on a mission to make sure parents and kids know that’s not true. She’s talked with adults about the danger and recently went back to her son’s middle school to hand out pamphlets.

    “To say ‘the water looks great, it looks like fun’ and it is. But it can also be very dangerous.’ And the one thing I wish somebody would have warned me – even as a parent, let alone my son – was to say, ‘Hey, you can die in that water.'”

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