A coroner’s investigation has determined a young Kamloops entrepreneur who died tragically by drowning in a swimming pool last summer would submerge himself to practise “meditative breathing” — and a medical expert is warning of dangers associated with the activity.
The coroner’s report was released following the death of Gary Bridal-Fisher, a 32-year-old Kamloops man and owner of Kamloops Heating and Air Conditioning.
Bridal-Fisher died on Aug. 20, 2019 ,and the BC Coroner’s Service investigated.
According to the coroner’s report, Bridal-Fisher used a one-metre high, above-ground pool at his home to aid with a previous back injury and submerged himself to practise a meditative breathing technique, which involves hyperventilating prior to holding one’s breath underwater.
It is done to elicit a euphoric reaction or high.
When practising the breathing technique, Bridal-Fisher would set an audible timer, so he knew when to resurface and take a breath, the coroner’s report states.
“On the afternoon of Aug. 20, 2019, Mr. Bridal-Fisher returned home from work and told his spouse he would be in the pool,” the report said.
“He was seen by his spouse with his head above the water performing his breathing exercises. Approximately 15 to 20 minutes later, she heard the audible timer ringing for a longer than expected time.”
Bridal-Fisher was found unconscious and the coroner determined he died accidentally of drowning.
Kamloops This Week has heard anecdotally of others practising a similar breathing technique in the city. KTW spoke to a medical expert, who explained why the practice is dangerous.
UBC professor Ian Pike had not reviewed Bridal-Fisher’s coroner’s report, but is familiar with the underwater breathing technique and what is called “shallow water blackout,” which can result.
Pike said the practise of hyperventilation before submerging in water is problematic and dangerous.
The reason people feel the urge to breathe is due to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
The brain is triggered to inhale and blow off the carbon dioxide.
Hyperventilation, which involves more frequent breaths, releases more carbon dioxide.
Pike said the act artificially lowers the level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, therefore changing signals to the brain.
“Essentially, what you’re doing is, you have lower levels of carbon dioxide and, therefore, the response to take a breath is not triggered,” Pike said.
“So now you don’t have the normal trigger to breathe in.”
That change in chemistry also causes a state of euphoria and fainting. It is extremely dangerous when done underwater.
If one faints underwater, Pike explained, the brain is eventually sent a signal to inhale and the lungs fill with water.
“Once you fill your lungs with water, you have an extremely difficult time — even if you are recognized and rescued very quickly and if CPR and AR is applied very quickly — the fact that you have water inside your lungs changes the whole physiology of your lungs. … You go into extreme distress,” Pike said.
Cardiac arrest occurs as a result of water thinning the blood and causing a heart attack.
Hyperventilation, or tricking of the brain not to breathe, is used by others to hold their breath for long durations.
Pike said military personnel experience an influx of deaths related to shallow water blackouts, due to training to swim underwater for long periods of time.
People of cultures in other parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, can dive and spend several minutes underwater, Pike noted.
However, he said, they aren’t hyperventilating nor seeking a euphoric state, but have trained for years to hold their breath.
Pike said the message about hyperventilating and entering water, whatever the reason, is that it is dangerous and can be fatal. Pike said neither fitness nor health factor into the risk level.
According to a BC Coroners Service report on accidental drowning deaths from 2008 to 2016, more than one in three accidental drownings in B.C. occurred in the Interior Health region.
Eighty per cent of the drownings involved males, with 19-to-29-year-olds the demographic most represented.