A Doctor Saves a Drowning Family in a Dangerous River

Daniel Cassavar, MD, as told to Sarah Yahr Tucker

December 21, 2022


Emergencies happen anywhere, anytime, and sometimes physicians find themselves in situations where they are the only ones who can help. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a new Medscape series telling these stories.

I live on the Maumee River in Ohio, about 50 yards from the water. I had an early quit time and came home to meet my wife for lunch. Afterward, I went up to my barn across the main road to tinker around. It was a nice day out, so my wife had opened some windows. Suddenly, she heard screaming from the river. It did not sound like fun.

Dr Daniel Cassavar

She ran down to the river's edge and saw a dad and three boys struggling in the water. She phoned me screaming, "They're drowning! They're drowning!" I jumped in my truck and drove up our driveway through the yard right down to the river.

My wife was on the phone with 911 at that point, and I could see them about 75 to 100 yards out. The dad had two of the boys clinging around his neck. They were going under the water and coming up and going under again. The other boy was just floating nearby, face down, motionless.

I threw my shoes and scrubs off and started to walk towards the water. My wife screamed at me, "You're not going in there!" I said, "I'm not going to stand here and watch this. It's not going to happen."

I'm not a kid anymore, but I was a high school swimmer, and to this day I work out all the time. I felt like I had to try something. So, I went in the water despite my wife yelling and I swam towards them.

What happens when you get in that deep water is that you panic. You can't hear anyone because of the rapids, and your instinct is to swim back towards where you went in, which is against the current. Unless you're a very strong swimmer, you're just wasting your time, swimming in place.

But these guys weren't trying to go anywhere. Dad was just trying to stay up and keep the boys alive. He was in about 10 feet of water. What they didn't see or just didn't know: About 20 yards upstream from that deep water is a little island.

When I got to them, I yelled at the dad to move towards the island, "Go backwards! Go back!" I flipped the boy over who wasn't moving. He was the oldest of the three, around 10 or 11 years old. When I turned him over, he was blue and wasn't breathing. I put my fingers on his neck and didn't feel a pulse.

So, I'm treading water, holding him. I put an arm behind his back and started doing chest compressions on him. I probably did a dozen to 15 compressions ― nothing. I thought, I've got to get some air in this kid. So, I gave him two deep breaths and then started doing compressions again. I know ACLS and CPR training would say we don't do that anymore. But I couldn't just sit there and give up. Shortly after that, he coughed out a large amount of water and started breathing.

The dad and the other two boys had made it to the island. So, I started moving towards it with the boy. It was a few minutes before he regained consciousness. Of course, he was unaware of what had happened. He started to scream, because here's this strange man holding him. But he was breathing. That's all I cared about.

When we got to the island, I saw that my neighbor downstream had launched his canoe. He's a retired gentleman who lives next to me, a very physically fit man. He started rolling as hard as he could towards us, against the stream. I kind of gave him a thumbs up, like. "We're safe now. We're standing." We loaded the kids and the dad in the canoe and made it back against the stream to the parking lot where they went in.

All this took probably 10 or 15 minutes, and by then the paramedics were there. Life Flight had been dispatched up by my barn where there's room to land. So, they drove up there in the ambulance. The boy I revived was flown to the hospital. The others went in the ambulance.

I know all the ER docs, so I talked to somebody later who, with permission from the family, said they were all doing fine. They were getting x-rays on the boy's lungs. And then I heard the dad and two boys were released that night. The other boy I worked on was observed overnight and discharged the following morning.

Four or five days later, I heard from their pediatrician, who also had permission to share. He sent me a very nice note through Epic that he had seen the boys. Besides some mental trauma, they were all healthy and doing fine.

The family lives in the area and the kids go to school five miles from my house. So, the following weekend they came over. It was Father's Day, which was kind of cool. They brought me some flowers and candy and a card the boys had drawn to thank me.

I learned that the dad had brought the boys to the fishing site. They were horsing around in knee deep water. One of the boys walked off a little way and didn't realize there was a drop off. He went in, and of course the dad went after him, and the other two followed.

I said to the parents, "Look, things like this happen for a reason. People like your son are saved and go on in this world because they've got special things to do. I can't wait to see what kind of man he becomes."

Two or three months later, it was football season, and I got at a message from the dad saying their son was playing football on Saturday at the school. He wondered if I could drop by. So, I kind of snuck over and watched, but I didn't go say hi. There's trauma there, and I didn't want them to have to relive that.

I'm very fortunate that I exercise every day and I know how to do CPR and swim. And thank God the boy was floating when I got to him, or I never would've found him. The Maumee River is known as the "muddy Maumee." You can't see anything under the water.

Depending on the time of year, the river can be almost dry or overflowing into the parking lot with the current rushing hard. If it had been like that, I wouldn't have considered going in. And they wouldn't they have been there in the first place. They'd have been a mile downstream.

I took a risk. I could have gone out there and had the dad and two other kids jump on top of me. Then we all would have been in trouble. But like I told my wife, I couldn't stand there and watch it. I'm just not that person.

I think it was also about being a dad myself and having grandkids now. Doctor or no doctor, I felt like I was in reasonably good shape and I had to go in there to help. This dad was trying his butt off, but three little kids is too many. You can't do that by yourself. They were not going to make it.

I go to the hospital and I save lives as part of my job, and I don't even come home and talk about it. But this is a whole different thing. Being able to save someone's life when put in this situation is very gratifying. It's a tremendous feeling. There's a reason that young man is here today, and I'll be watching for great things from him.

Daniel Cassavar, MD, is a cardiologist with ProMedica in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Are you a physician with a dramatic medical story outside the clinic? Medscape would love to consider your story for Is There a Doctor in the House? Please email your contact information and a short summary of your story to access@webmd.net.

Read more in the series:

A Hiking Accident Becomes a Helicopter Disaster

A Beach Drowning and Car Crash Rescue – Back to Back

Half Marathon Heart Crisis – Times Two

A Post-Super Bowl Airplane Emergency

A Plane Crash Interrupts a Doctor's Vacation

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