It’s been far too long since I sat in a tower, watching my water and the flora and fauna who frequent Santa Monica Beach. I have been haunted by an incident that happened in my third year of lifeguarding and in moments of reverie have sought answers.
It was an uncrowded, late June weekday, at Tower 10. I had completed my workout, squared away my tower and was watching my water. It was too early for the stewardesses to show up and compel some attention. Nothing remarkable, just this old guy in his black Speedos walking out from one of the houses along the PCH to take his morning swim. I had seen him for the past three weeks repeat the same routine. Put his towel down on the start of the hard sand, walk to the water’s edge and don his white swimming cap, walk out beyond the break and dog-paddle out about thirty yards from shore. He would backstroke south to Tower 11 and swim back in. That was it.
But something gnawed at me that morning and for no reason I could understand at the time. The surf was June-flat and the sea surface glassy—it was an ocean swimmer’s dream. I just couldn’t take my eyes off him and without apparent reason picked up my 7x50 Bushnells for a closer look. Nothing except my uneasiness. As he cleared the imaginary surf line, I picked up the phone and told Bill Beatty on the switchboard that I was going to go down on a swimmer just to check him out and to have the guys in Towers 9 and 11 keep an eye out, though I was sure it was nothing.
The water compelled me as the old man began his backstroke south. I was knee deep when it happened. The old guy suddenly threw both arms up in the air and went down. As I sprinted to him in full adrenalin rush, he bobbed back to the surface face down. I got to him in less than 30 seconds and rolled him over. He was dead weight and lifeless. I put my old Pete Peterson tube under his back to support him as I felt for a carotid pulse. Nothing. By the time I got back to where I could stand the guys from both Towers were sprinting down in support. I stopped momentarily to give my victim four quick breaths and fireman carried him to shore. My support was in front of me and grabbed his arms, bringing him to the dry, hard sand and we began full CPR which included two cardiac thumps, SOP at the time.
A small crowd gathered in to witness the spectacle, up close, if not personal. The guy from Tower 11 was a rookie who pulled the victim’s head back to establish an airway and start mouth-to-mouth. I also heard the siren from beach lieutenant Ron Brown (RIP) as he moved toward us Code 3 in the old north beach jeep. He pulled out an airway to aid the rookie, alternatively blowing air and gagging from the salt water coming up from the victim’s stomach. I pumped away in an effort to raise a heartbeat. Nothing.
Brown had already called for an ambulance and after about three futile minutes I looked up at him and he knowingly responded, “Keep going, we’re going to take him up to the ER in town, the ambulances are all tied up with a bad traffic accident and by the time one of them gets here it will be too late, just keep going.” Brown supervised putting the victim on a backboard and then loading him into the back of the Jeep with the tail gate down, all the while being admonishing us to “keep going.” When we were in the soft sand and away from the crowd, Brown turned his head back to the rookie and me saying “We’ve got to do this for the sake of the public—show them how we go to extraordinary measures to try to save someone. He’s gone but we’re going to keep this up all the way to the ER.” Brown told the rookie to grab his tube and walk back to his tower and told me to assume both CPR roles.
It was a wild, bumpy ride to the ER, first getting out on the Coast Highway Code 3 and then driving through the streets of downtown Santa Monica with a dead guy who was rolling back and forth with every turn. When we got to the ER entrance two orderlies came out, put the victim on a gurney and took him to a waiting trauma physician. Brown briefed him in about fifteen seconds as only a former Navy SEAL could do. The doctor felt for a pulse and pronounced “He’s gone.” Brown replied, “So are we,” and we returned to the beach. On the way back Brown interrupted the silence he was leaning on only to say, “Community relations, we had to show those people that we were doing everything we could to save the guy’s life.” That was my first real object lesson in community relations.
I have analyzed this situation a thousand times asking myself how I could have known something was about to go wrong. A couple of weeks afterward Brown stopped by my tower unexpectedly and I explained my premonition and lack of a very good handle to understand it. He looked at me with a wry smile and just muttered, “Sometimes you’ve just got to trust your instincts, it can save your life or someone else’s.” He got back in the jeep and drove off and we never spoke of the event again.
Last year I read a book that gave me some remarkable insight into what had gone on so many years ago. The book is Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about what Gladwell calls the “adaptive unconscious” and begins with an incident at the Getty Museum. A potentially vital piece of antiquity, a stone statue, had been found. It was is much better shape than any similar artifacts from the period some 600 years BC and the Getty was considering buying it. They wanted to know if the artifact was genuine or a fake and invited several world experts in art of that time period to inspect it. One of the experts walked in, took a look at the statue from across the room and immediately knew it was fake but hadn’t even examined it yet. After examining it, he announced to the museum curators that he believed the art was a fake. The Getty Museum bought the piece anyway and more than a year later discovered that the art expert had been correct in his assessment. They interviewed him and asked him how he could have known it was a forgery in the first 3 seconds he saw it from across the room. He replied simply that it looked fresh, and a statue that old shouldn’t look fresh.
It turns out that the human brain has the ability to process new information extremely rapidly—within a second or two and make rigorous decision from this information in another second. As beach lifeguards, we have our personal intelligence and experience stored in our brain that allows us to quickly examine situations that most people would regard as inconsequential, understand them and take appropriate, perhaps life-saving, actions.
The next time something seemingly commonplace draws your attention, don’t fight your brain and rationalize why you shouldn’t act. Go for it instead!
Former Santa Monica and LACO Beach Lifeguard
(Loyd, in a contemporary photo above, courtesy of Loyd, with a 218# yellowfin tuna from Piñas Bay, Panama. It was a stand-up catch of 50# line. "County Recurrent" Cross-Reference/File under: "Can you say Sashimi?!")
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"Blinking at Santa Monica Beach" is Copyright Loyd Pettegrew 2010. All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission. The photo above is also courtesy of Loyd.
Incidentally, for those of you interested in reading the Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink, a great online resource for very reasonably priced used books is AbeBooks.com. For your convenience, below is the link you can copy and paste into your browser, as well as a link to the same page with a shortened URL, courtesy of bit.ly, as follows:
Many Thanks to Loyd for sharing this lifeguard story which sheds perhaps some light on the "lifeguard instinct" or the adaptive unconscious which is shaped over time from experience and training. It starts with our mantra,"Watch the Water" but you can judge for yourself if our additional mantra, "If in doubt, go!" does not seem to infer that we need to pay attention to our inner voice and instincts as well. As Loyd has so clearly stated, "The next time something seemingly commonplace draws your attention, don’t fight your brain and rationalize why you shouldn’t act. Go for it instead!"
Postscript: After emailing each other back and forth on this topic, Loyd captured the essence, quite succinctly, of what we as lifeguards can learn from this story of his, namely: “Watch the water. Don’t doubt, trust that inner voice and go!”
Until next time.....
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