How to write a character drowing?

The facts and science behind fictional drowning.

Let me just say this first. I am not a murderer nor a person with any intention to murderer. With that said, let’s talk about the fun of drowning! (Definitely not mad). Drowning is defined as respiratory impairment from being in or under a liquid, or at least that is what the first line of Wikipedia would like you to believe (can you see how in depth this research is?!). But drowning is more complicated than that, it is a minefield of complex and raw emotions, along with the pure pain of the victim.

I love emotions, especially the terrible, cruel ones; the feelings of betrayal, of terror, of a never ending guilt…so awesome! And creating scenarios, where these emotions cannot be evaded, are my favourite things to write about. This week, as you may be able to tell was drowning week (what a bleak and boring event that would be.) I shall be researching and writing about the feeling of drowning both internally and externally.  So naturally I took to the internet to see what it could inform me on drowning!

First thing I will need to know if I’m going to write a piece on drowning is how long I can make the piece. Oxygen deprivation will be the first thing to renter a person drowning unconscious. Now this may surprise you, but we need to breathe oxygen to live. This is to complete respiration which is the act of converting glucose into ATP which produce energy for our cells, more importantly our brain and muscle cells. Most organs of the body can last 6-9 minutes without oxygen but the brain can only last three minutes without oxygen before rendering the person unconscious and any more than five minutes will leave the person with permanent brain damage. However, this is only once the body has run out of oxygen, so how much oxygen can the body store? The average male lungs can hypothetically hold six litres of oxygen. However, this usually isn’t reached and the maximum average that can be breathed in is 3.5 litres of oxygen and at rest 3.1 litres of oxygen. So that is an average of 3.3 litres being able to be use to supply oxygen to the muscles and brain. The brain uses 20% of the inhaled oxygen, so 0.7 litres of one breathe. The human body inhaled 550 litres in a day which means 110 litres is used by the brain in twenty-four hours, 4.58 litres are used each hour and 0.07 is used each minute, so a person can last 13 minutes underwater. This usually would be shorter given that in my example it is without any limits or restrictions, but this gives us the window of drowning.

The normal idea of drowning as a violent struggling and crying for help in the brief snatches above water is not drowning. True, these actions can lead to drowning especially if the victim cannot swim but drowning itself happens afterwards. Common symptoms of drowning are underwater such as trying to swim away but being unable to and flaying of limbs all completely submerged. The face is also a giveaway, eyes being glassy and unfocused or a look of panic.

However, while this helps describe drowning from someone else point of view who is watching, I want wish to look at drowning from the drownees point of view. So we have to look at what is happening internally. So what does it feel like? Underwater a conscious person will hold their breath until at the edge of unconscious. They are voluntarily not breathing, this is called apnea and causes an increase to start the breathing reflex as the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood increases. This feeling is close to agony, a burning in the head and throat. This pain would often lead to feelings of anger and desperation against the oncoming drowning. Because of the lack of oxygen, the person also experience sudden dizziness and darkness closing in which can feel incredibly claustrophobia, leading to a dullness in emotion yet still feeling or wishing to be anger to plough up to the surface. As well as this the victim will feel else as the onset panic of the realization of drowning, the realization of oncoming death. This, with the dizziness lead to disorientation in the water. Then they breathe in. This still happens while are semi-conscious, so the finality of water breathing the lungs, the person knowing it IS going to end. So we know how a drowning person feels internally.

In my example the character shall be in fresh water near the North Sea, which will have an effect on the temperature. Rivers in cold conditions around the North Sea have can be at a maximum 17 degrees and at its lowest 6 degrees. The effect of this cold water emersion happens in four stages; Cold Shock Response, Cold Incapacitation, Hypothermia and Circum-rescue Collapse, however only the first two of these actually occur during our time window. Cold Shock is the breathing reflex automatically react when the body hits cold water, meaning our character may have less time to live if this happens will their head is below water. Cold Incapacitation is when vasoconstriction of the blood vessels near the skin surface close of to stop heat escape, this leads to loss of movement in the limbs making it harder to swim to the surface. So we have now covered everything from the time limit to the basic effect coldness has on the body. With this all into consideration we can finally write our piece on drowning. Yay! (Seriously, not mad).

Anyone who has read my little about section maybe confused by this sudden detour on the second blog entry, but that’s because I’m reading Game of thrones for my next entry and that book was longer than I expected so I’ll get back on schedule next week…off to a great stay.


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