Judy and Tony Fisher are in a club that nobody wishes to join because they have lost a child. Their 12 year old son Nic drowned in their backyard pool in 2001 but it was ten years before they understood what had actually caused this tragedy. They learnt that he’d died from Shallow Water Blackout in 2011, and the shocking part is that most people have played the long breath-holding game he and his friends were enjoying at the time.
Finally, some answers
“We didn’t have a reason for Nic’s death until the same thing happened to another boy in Wollongong ten years later,” Judy explained. “It all came out in the press, and friends were phoning me from everywhere saying it was identical, and that’s what it was.”
Shallow Water Blackout is where the levels of oxygen drop and carbon dioxide rise from holding one’s breath too long underwater or from intentional hyperventilation or exertion when swimming, causing an underwater faint (or blackout) and the body’s reaction to that, causing the lungs to fill with water. Unlike normal drowning, which takes about six minutes, death from Shallow Water Blackout – or hypoxic blackout – is just two and a half minutes as the body is already low in oxygen. Air cannot enter the lungs because they are already filled with water (regardless of the depth) and even the strongest swimmers, free-divers and snorkelers are at risk because it happens without warning.
Fit young men are most at risk
Surprisingly, it’s not usually young children who succumb to Shallow Water Blackout. It’s mostly fit, young men in their 20’s and 30’s because of their competitive nature. Judy said that there are no accurate statistics on the number of victims as most are simply recorded as drowning because of the coroner’s findings, not from the circumstances of the drowning.
Most people will agree that they’ve played the same breath-holding game in the pool, or their children still do it now, and they have no idea of the serious risks it poses, nor the speed at which it happens, as the person quietly sinks to the bottom. Now, Judy and Tony take any opportunity they can to raise publicity about Shallow Water Blackout.
National press exposure
“We’ve done a lot, including a segment on A Current Affair and Shallow Water Blackout Australia did an episode on 60 Minutes. Plus, Nic’s sister, Carly, also published an article on Mamma Mia to raise awareness of what could happen,” Judy said. “National Life Saving training exercises have also taken the long breath-holding components out of their training courses in recognition of the risk.”
A sign meant for every pool: No Long-Breath Holding
“Here in Parkes and district we provide ‘No Long Breath-Holding’ signs which people can put up around private pools. For example, people contact me to purchase signs for their adult children who are having pools installed. We have also supplied ‘No Long-Breath Holding’ signs to most public pools throughout the central west.”
Learning to live again
Judy and Tony are determined that Nic’s death will not be a waste and they are very involved in a world-wide organisation run by volunteers for bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings called The Compassionate Friends. “Through The Compassionate Friends (TCF), we support other families going through the same experience and we feel that this honours Nic. We learned about NSW TCF through a Parkes friend soon after we lost Nic, and soon after an international TCF conference was advertised and Tony was keen to go, even though I still felt I couldn’t mix confidently or socially. I was quite unsure about going, but when we walked in we felt this incredible connection that I just can’t explain. Their understanding and advice was unbelievable. We decided to establish a TCF group in Parkes because we realised how much other bereaved parents had helped us in those early days and that supporting each other was so important. We understood that we weren’t going mad from losing a child – this is how it is.”
At the conference, Judy and Tony also met people who were twenty years down the track from losing a child and they decided to be like them – ‘to get better, not bitter.’
“A big part of the TCF support is sitting and talking to someone who understands how you are feeling, without judgement, and about where you are on the loss timeline,” Judy said. “Another bereaved mum told me in those early days that it often takes ten years after losing a child before you can function properly in society, and that actually ended up being correct for me, even though I was still going to work as a teacher years earlier than that. We didn’t consciously plan to help others as we had no idea how we would react to our loss. In the beginning, we needed to help ourselves, but then over time we would visit people we knew when they lost a child and we could see how much they needed the support from having a conversation…it was an automatic bond.”
Compassionate friends in the central west
Over the past 20 years, when someone in Parkes or the surrounding Central West area loses a child Judy and Tony are often asked to contact the family. Judy says that bereaved parents have some ‘golden rules’: “Don’t try to make the person feel better by saying things like ‘thank goodness you’ve got other children’; ‘they won’t be in pain anymore’; ‘they’re in a happy place’ or compare them with someone who’s worse off. It rubs bereaved people the wrong way and it is not helpful.”
Everyone reacts differently, and Judy to this day – after 22 years without Nic – still cannot go to school on his birthday, but she says TCF is all about living for their loved ones and living to honour them. “We decided to honour Nic by the way we lead our lives, but we understand there are people who are stuck in their grief and we feel for them, too. We’ll phone them out of the blue and ask them out for a coffee and talk about their child. It’s just a listening thing.”
A world-wide vigil with a heart-warming difference
TCF hold an annual worldwide candle-lighting night on the 2nd Sunday of December where-ever there is a group – locally this is Parkes and Orange (contact for Orange is Donna Stedman). “This is a special night for many bereaved families. Anyone is welcome to come on the night to acknowledge and remember our children who won’t be here for Christmas. We play music, read poems, light candles and put photos of our children on the Christmas tree – so there’s lots of tears, laughs, quiet times and memories. It occurs every year and it’s their special evening. We give a little Christmas tree ornament for every family to take home in honour of their child for that year. When someone joins these evenings they feel it’s OK to be part of it. TCF also hold our annual ‘Walk to Remember’ which is a day where we spend time together walking and talking – and everyone becomes one of our very special, compassionate friends.
Help save a life. Visit Shallow Water Blackout Prevention
Our 2023 Hero of the Year is sponsored by Peter Fisher Real Estate