I Watched a Man Drown; The Only Thing I Could Do After Was Go Home and Make Dinner


Sunsets are an event on Costa Rica’s Pacific side. People gather, play guitars, bring drinks — it’s the social event of the day.

Such was supposed to be the case on a recent Sunday evening, when my wife, our two young boys, and our dog, laid down our blanket. We had beach toys for the kids and beers for us just 50 meters from the water in Playa Bejuco, Costa Rica, a quiet ex-pat community 30 minutes south of Jaco. Playa Bejuco itself is a beautiful beach with sand so fine and soft it feels like you’re walking on silk. I surfed there, we played in the water with our kids there, and we enjoyed the spectacular sunsets.

It was as beautiful as a sunset in Costa Rica is supposed to be until I saw a group of people running out of the water. “I think they’re helping someone out of the water” I pointed out to my wife. It soon became clear that this person wasn’t being helped out of the water, he was being carried and dragged out. This guys was in trouble.

What do you do when something like this happens right in front of you? How do you react? Do you run to the rescue or run for cover? I’m not an EMT or a lifeguard, I’m just your average dad who likes to surf and watch some Netflix. I’ve fantasized about being the hero in bad situations. Like roundhouse kicking a robber, tackling a terrorist on a plane, or otherwise saving the day. But when something happens in real life — right in front of you — it’s very different. I passively decided that the crowd around this guy was growing and that I might just get in the way and be more harm than help. So I stayed put and out of the way, but my curiosity still wanted to see what was happening. There’s a delicate balance between wanting to know what’s going on and being a distraction to those actually trying to help.

My wife called 911 (the emergency number in Costa Rica also happens to be 911), and people began administering CPR. To be clear, I was sure this guy was going to survive. I’ve seen enough movies to know that if someone gets rescued from the water, they get rescued. CPR works. Chest compressions, mouth-to-mouth, then the person coughs up water and everyone cheers. I was ready to cheer.

When someone isn’t breathing, every minute counts. And as the minutes went by, my certainty devolved into uncertainty. When the ambulance pulled up on the beach 15 minutes later and people were still performing CPR, I knew it was too late. The medics gave a final CPR attempt and proclaimed him dead. We were frozen on our cute little beach blanket with our kids and beach toys, ignoring the spectacular sunset we’d come or. It was a heavy event to witness. In total, about 20 minutes had passed. We sat in the car in silence for a bit. What do you do after witnessing something like that? What does an ER doctor do when they lose a patient? I guess they take a few deep breaths, curse under their breath, and move on. And that’s what we did. We drove home, cooked dinner for the kids, and carried on. I felt like we should be doing something else, acting differently, doing anything other than just going back to our regularly scheduled programming of life.

In the end, I don’t know what actually happened to that man. I don’t know if he hit his head on a rock, if he just couldn’t swim, if he was drinking — I have no idea and it doesn’t even matter. The riptides are strong at this beach and even when the water is calm it can still suck you out with force. When you are witness to something like this you immediately think, “I surf here by myself, I take my kids in the water here. What if something like that happened to me?” It propelled us to act.

When we came back to the states shortly after the accident, my wife and I signed up to get CPR certified in Jacksonville. It takes half a day, isn’t very expensive, and my instructor made the class entertaining and fun. Now I feel ready and equipped to be a rescuer, not a bystander, if something like this happens again. In fact, I can’t believe I’ve been a surfer this long without knowing how to perform CPR. It was years before I even put a first aid kit in my car. When I was chatting with the instructor after my class, he told me 99% of his clients are medical professionals or teachers who are required to be CPR certified. There are very few people like me who come to his class just because they think it’s an important skill to have, which is a shame.

About a month has passed since that day and we are now living full time in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, another Pacific coastal beach town. Living in the Costa Rican jungle, you can’t count on first responders to be right around the corner waiting for your call. You have to be able to help yourself and be able to help others.

If you surf, enjoy the water in any capacity, or just want to be able to help if someone is in need, take a CPR class. I don’t think the guy I watched drown could have been saved but these situations happen and people can be saved if you have the skills and knowledge to help. It’s unfortunate that I waited for something bad to happen before I acted, but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t).

Source: I Watched a Man Drown; The Only Thing I Could Do After Was Go Home and Make Dinner

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