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Drownings, spine injuries spurs neurosurgeon to sound alarm

Canadians wait all year for summer, when backyard pools and picturesque lakes become the setting for family get-togethers and good times with friends.

But with drownings up 9 per cent this year, and one major trauma centre reporting a dramatic spike in diving-related spinal injuries, there is mounting evidence that adults are ignoring the risks that come with a seasonal pleasure.

Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, has seen so many patients left quadriplegic or paraplegic this year that he was compelled to issue a public plea to take water safety seriously.

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"You see young peoples' lives being shattered," Dr. Cusimano said Tuesday.

Most of the cases he's seen were preventable – and most involved alcohol.

That means a blatant disregard for water safety is playing a major role in these injuries, he said.

"It's the same story: 'I dove into a lake, I was drinking and having fun with my friends,'" said Dr. Cusimano, who has also sounded the alarm on the dangers of bodychecking in another Canadian pastime – youth hockey.

St. Michael's Hospital, one of two major trauma centres in Toronto that treat the majority of catastrophic injuries in Ontario, has treated seven devastating diving-related injuries this year.

Most years, the hospital would see just one patient for this type of trauma.

But diving accidents are just one symptom of an apparent lack of caution on the water: At least 221 people have drowned across the country while swimming or boating in 2011, compared to 203 deaths at the same time last year, according to the Lifesaving Society of Canada.

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In Ontario, the data show the majority of drownings involve people older than 26 – unlike last year, when a large number of children drowned.

Statistics show that nearly half of people age 15 and older who drown have alcohol in their system, and only a small fraction of drowning victims were properly wearing life jackets.

Experts say the deeper problem is that people don't seem to take the risks of water seriously.

"There's a lot more drinking going on, people just not really paying attention to what can happen when you make bad choices," said Joanne Banfield, manager of the RBC First Office for Injury Prevention at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

That hospital, which accepts trauma patients on alternate days from St. Michael's, has treated one diving-related injury this year, a male who is now a quadriplegic.

"In our world, one is too many because all of these are preventable incidents," Ms. Banfield said.

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Several other trauma centres across Ontario say they have seen one or two cases of diving-related spinal injuries this year, on par with previous years.

"Knowing [water] depth, going feet-first the first time, these kinds of basic things are being forgotten because they're having a good time and they're drinking and they don't think about it," Dr. Cusimano said.

Despite their age, many adults who go in the water seem to underestimate the importance of water safety, said Barbara Byers, public education director at the lifesaving society.

"Most people haven't thought about [wearing a life jacket] and those who think about it, they just say, 'I'm going to take a chance,' " Ms. Byers said.

Dr. Cusimano said he is concerned about the number of young people who horse around in the water, consume alcohol before swimming or boating, or take risks, such as jumping into pools from ladders or roofs.

"There's a lack of awareness out there how fragile, really, our bodies are," he said. "These are just young guys in their 20s who are having a good time."

Lynne Lamoureux is coming to grips with the devastation that can occur when fun in the water goes wrong. Her son, Bradon, 23, was swimming on July 21 – the hottest day of the month – with friends. He dove into shallow water and hit the bottom, leaving him quadriplegic and on a ventilator.

"It's turned our world upside down," she said.

Ms. Lamoureux, who is contemplating renovations to the family home to make it wheelchair-accessible, said she's taking it day by day

Key safety measures to avoid serious injury or death highlighted by Dr. Cusimano include making sure there is enough light, avoiding pushing anyone in the water, and never diving in unfamiliar bodies of water or into shallow ends of pools.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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