Near-drowning raises water safety awareness

First slide

Pulling into a parking spot at Tall Timbers Marina in St. Mary's County, Md., March 27, Michael Clark was looking forward to spending a peaceful weekend with his wife. But what initially started as a "minivacation" quickly became an emergency when the varsity swim coach at Marymount University in Arlington realized a woman had fallen into the water.

Although Clark had noticed Valerie Dieudonne getting out of a nearby car, he initially ignored the sound of a "thump and a splash," believing that the woman had dropped something into the water. It was only when he began walking down the dock and saw what looked like a garbage bag floating beneath the waves he realized the woman's life was on the line.

While Clark did not know Dieudonne, he didn't think twice about jumping into the 40-degree water to use his more than 30 years of experience as a lifeguard to help the unconscious woman.

"I was not scared for me, I was scared for Valerie," Clark said. "I figured she was only in the water for a minute, but I didn't know if she had hit her head … so I wanted to be cautious about moving her."

After using a spinal injury management technique to turn Dieudonne onto her back, he began administering rescue breaths and yelling for help. Eventually, Clark attracted the attention of his wife, who immediately called 911 and ran to the nearby Sailing Center of Chesapeake to get help from the center's 14- to 18-year old students.

"The students … were tremendous," Clark said. "When they realized there was an emergency, two of them came running and got in the water with me to support Valerie while I continued to try to get her to breathe."

With the help of the students, Clark got Dieudonne strapped to a backboard and lifted out of the water onto the dock, a feat that would have been almost impossible alone.

Clark later learned that the center did not have the financial resources to provide CPR and first aid courses for their students. Clark and his wife made a donation to the center to ensure that students could be CPR-certified.

In a press release from Marymount, Dieudonne expressed her appreciation to Clark.

"If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't be here now," Dieudonne said. "Words can't even begin to describe how grateful I am."

Recognizing that an accident around water can be deadly for individuals who don't know how to swim, Clark is proud that Marymount will debut new drowning prevention programs and initiatives this fall.

Hoping to counteract the second leading cause of unintentional death in the United States for children under 14, Marymount has created Future Saints, a swim program for children from low-income families who are unable to afford swim lessons.

In addition, the university is creating the Clark Aquatic Foundation, a nonprofit organization that will provide funding for swim lessons, competitive swimming opportunities and lifeguard training.

Although he doesn't like to think of himself as a hero, Clark does believe that he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

"I have a set of skills that most people don't have," Clark said. "A lot of little things happened that put me in that position at the exact moment that saved Valerie's life."

Willis can be reached at jwillis@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015