It Kills Without Warning: “Shallow Water Blackout” in Focus

A family from Underhill, Vermont, is raising awareness of how oxygen deprivation to the brain can cause fainting underwater. The loss of consciousness, which has fairly recently become understood and known as "shallow water blackout," is blamed for the death of Ben Haller, 27.

"I miss my son immensely," Ben’s dad, Dean, told necn Wednesday. "I think about him constantly."

On August 1, 2014, Ben Haller, or Benjo as friends knew him, drowned in the Bahamas in just seven feet of water, his dad said.
Back in Vermont, his parents wondered how a strong young man, who was a talented sailor, a certified scuba instructor and an experienced diver, could fall victim to water when he was so comfortable on it.

"What makes this tragedy worse is it was so avoidable," Haller said. "What he did, he could’ve avoided had he known about it."

With a shallow water blackout, the brain doesn’t have enough oxygen, often because a swimmer was holding his or her breath too long or was exasperated. The blackouts often follow repeated patterns of breath-holding in one session, Dean Haller explained.

For a more detailed explanation of the way the body functions in this type of situation, visit this website.

"With shallow water blackout drownings, it only takes two minutes and you can’t revive someone," added Ben Haller’s mother, Sandy.

Ben spent his last day spear-fishing, which meant a lot of prolonged breath-holding, his parents noted.

Wednesday, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a proclamation making June shallow water blackout awareness month.

Good statistics aren’t available regarding how often fatal shallow water blackouts occur. It’s not yet a widely-known phenomenon, and a medical examiner would have to have known exactly what a person was doing right before they drowned to deem it a shallow water blackout.

"I would say the general public is probably unaware of this," said Tracy Dolan, a deputy commissioner with the Vermont Department of Health.

Dolan said with summer approaching, people should never swim alone, and breath-holding games are a bad idea. "Remember, if you feel like you need to breathe, come on up, don’t push past that point," Dolan explained.

The Hallers said they hope their new Live Like Benjo foundation will educate many about the dangers of shallow water blackouts.

The foundation also aims to spread Ben’s love of sailing to disadvantaged young people, the Hallers said.

"I feel like I have a purpose now," Dean Haller said, smiling. "It’s really been my salvation." 

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