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Help is at hand

What the brain needs to do is process the trauma, I heard once ‘you have to walk through it to get past it.”

CONTENT WARNING: trauma, child safety, drowning, mental health


What would you do if one minute you’re having fun splashing with your child in the waves and the next minute you’re fighting to keep them from drowning?


Would you relive the moment? Would you awake at 3am, still questioning if you did everything you could for your little one? And, if you recognised this was not healthy, who would you go to for help?


I never thought any of this would be my lived experience. It certainly wasn’t in my mind as my family relaxed on Sunshine Coast holiday in July, 2021.


Looking back now it is funny how we had not even planned to go swimming that day. But our hotel was right across the road from the beach and so we found ourselves down on the sand.


It was a strange time after all, we had escaped one of Melbourne’s many lockdowns only to be caught in a Sunshine Coast lockdown. We could not go to playgrounds but we could still enjoy the beach.


While my husband Matt and our youngest son Archer played on the sand, our eldest boy, Hamish (then 8), was jumping the waves. I followed him in – with my sunglasses on - not even thinking of going deeper than my knees.


As we ambled out, between the flags, up to our knees into the waves of the ocean we were focussed on having fun. I recall being next to Hamish when we were both pulled off a sandbar by a wave which shocked us with its ferocity.


Somehow I grabbed onto Hamish and we both raised our arms to alert the tower. What followed was a series of massive waves that repeatedly rolled through – well over our heads - and tossing us about.


Lifesavers would later describe them as the scariest waves they had seen at the beach yet. What happened after that became a blur.


I was holding onto Hamish for as long as I could. But then we got separated. After that it was like a washing machine tumbling repeatedly over and taking in more and more water.


It was hard to know which way was up and I genuinely thought this could be it. The next moment one of the lifeguards was there and he pulled me up out of the water.


I asked, ‘where is my son?’. But thankfully they had got to him first and he was amazingly fine. Fortunately Hamish is a strong swimmer and he's really good at holding his breath.

A year or two before we'd been on holiday in Fiji and the had a kids competition to see who could swim the farthest under the water. Hamish won easily and his ability to hold his breath under water and persevere through such incidents still makes him pretty proud today.


Hamish and I were both taken to hospital by ambulance after being pulled from the water. I realise now I was in shock, but I was also vomiting up a lot of water and they were concerned about a condition known as dry drowning.


This can occur after a near drowning when oxygen levels in the blood remain dangerously low – and it can still be fatal. After these physical ailments passed, it was the psychological questions I struggled with more.


It took me awhile to accept Hamish was okay. I had a strange state of mind in which I believed he may have died and that he wasn’t really here with us. I couldn’t process that he was okay.


Flashbacks of the incident continue to this day. If there is a windstorm, the sound of wind makes me recall the waves and I end up on the verge of a panic attack.


At the hospital, I was encouraged to seek help to process the trauma and when one of my colleagues heard about what happened they suggested I contact ANZ’s Employee Assistance Program.


The ANZ Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available to employees and their immediate family members globally. It provides confidential, free counselling and guidance for work or personal matters.


It was the next day I had my first conversation with Evy from Benestar and she explained to me how the brain works.


Evy explained the immediate trauma response and how you go into “survival mode”. While it feels like you’ll never be able to get over that, it will reduce in time.


While there is a tendency to say “well everything was okay in the end so I should focus on that” – it’s not a healthy response.


What the brain needs is to process the trauma, I heard once “you have to walk through it to get past it”.


Did we swim between the flags? Yes. Did we put our hands up when in danger? Yes. Did we give our kids swimming lessons when young? Yes.


My husband also used ANZ’s EAP service to speak to someone about his experience and when we returned to Victoria, the kids’ school organised a counsellor to speak to them.


We’re so thankful for the counselling and one of the best things we did was meet our rescuers, Jake Simpson and Zac Turner. We spoke to the local media about our rescue appeared on Channel Seven News and the Today Show.


We wanted to thank Jake and Zac but also reinforce the message to swim between the flags – something we advocate at all times. Since the incident, both my boys have started Nippers, the beach education program that introduces children to lifesaving.


I am still mindful as every summer approaches that we have had several years in which children may have missed swimming lessons due to COVID. So we need to be extra cautious.


If we can ask for help when drowning, we should also feel able to ask for help when we feel overwhelmed and our minds are struggling to cope. Just the way Jake and Zac should be praised for their amazing work, people like Evy need to be recognised for the assistance they give.


Seeking solace is not an act of weakness. In fact you – and your loved ones - will be better for it.


Raise awareness about mental health issues by engaging in R U OK Day on 14 September.


Fiona MacDonald is ANZ’s Diversity & Inclusion Lead and accredited mental health first aider.

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