Dep. Jenna Underwood-Nunez of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was enjoying a day off with her husband and children next to a lake when she heard cries of distress coming from the water. Despite the fact that she was off duty and almost six months pregnant, she ran to the victim's aid. Here, she relates the incident in her own words.
Being not only a woman but also a mother working in law enforcement brings its own unique challenges: trying to balance family and work, finding a schedule that will allow you to spend time with your children, and still managing to find the time to train your body and mind to keep yourself in the game. I thought I was doing a good job at it.
I promised myself after the birth of my children that when I was at home I was a mother and at work I was a deputy, never thinking those two worlds would collide even though we hear story after story of it happening.
On April 27, 2013, I was faced with the famous question, "What would you do?" Everyone's reaction is different, taking into consideration training, experience, and ability. For me, I just acted.
I was eating dinner with my husband and children at a snack bar restaurant at the Silverwood Lake Campground in Southern California when I heard yelling coming from the lake. I could see two people in the water, one signaling for help and the other splashing, clearly in distress. I remember saying, "Oh my God, I think he's drowning!" the next thing I knew I was running across the beach and into the water.
I swam to where I had seen the two men, but now only one was visible. I asked the man signaling for help where his friend was and he replied, "Under the water!" It became very clear at that moment the seriousness of the situation. While swimming out there I had thought I would reach the two people in the water, help them to the shallow area, and that would be the end of it. But I found out quickly I had been very wrong.
Instead, I dove under the water looking for the victim. I kept swimming further down until I saw him on the bottom of the lake. His arms and legs were pointing to the surface of the water, his eyes open looking at me. It seemed like some kind of scary movie, but sadly it was not a movie; it was reality. The water was murky, full of algae and sediment from the bottom of the lake, so I was glad I was able to see well enough to find him. I grabbed his arm and head with my left arm and started to swim up from the bottom.
As I was approaching the surface I began to struggle myself, thinking for a brief second I might not make it and would have to let go of the victim. The weight of his body in the water and the loss of my own air made getting to the top difficult. Luckily, I was able to bring both of us to the surface and take a breath, filling my lungs up with air and making it easier for me to stay above water.
I struggled to swim with the victim; I used my strong arm to swim and held him with my left arm. I rested his head on my chest and tried to keep his head above water even though it was very clear he was unresponsive and not breathing.
As fate would have it, while I struggled to swim back to shore with the victim I saw a man and his daughter in a small inflatable boat paddling about 15 feet away from me. I called for help and swam to them as best I could. As I approached the boat I could see the look of sheer panic on both of their faces and I remember feeling terrible bringing them into the situation. The girl was so young, and being a parent myself I know I would not want my child to bear witness to that, but I had no choice. I was having too much difficulty towing the victim's weight through the water. So I hooked my strong arm onto the boat, held onto him with my left arm, and paddled to shore, kicking my legs.
Once we reached land, the man in the boat helped me pull the victim onto the beach and I immediately yelled that someone had to call 911 and that we needed to start CPR. As I was catching my breath, an unknown woman started compressions on the victim. As she did so he began to throw up all the lake water and food he had consumed prior to going into the water. We got to the point of rescue breathing and I knew what I had to do. I cleared the vomit and water from his face as best I could and began giving him mouth to mouth and then took over compressions. I did about four cycles of CPR.
When the victim began to breathe on his own, I was shocked and almost compulsively kept checking his pulse and looking for his chest to rise and fall. I put him on his side in the recovery position and held his head on my forearm, maintaining an airway, talking to him, and reassuring him until rangers arrived about 10 minutes later and paramedics at least 20 minutes later. He was airlifted to the hospital approximately 40 minutes after the incident began. I found out he was a 17-year-old senior in high school, and he's expected to make a full recovery.
After the story came out I was asked a lot of questions. One of the main ones was, "Did you think about the fact that you were pregnant before you acted?" And the truth was no, I just reacted to the situation and did the best I could. Luckily for me and for the victim it turned out well. I do not know how I would feel if the outcome had not been the same, but I do know I would do it all again without hesitation.
While the incident was happening I never doubted my decisions; I didn't have time to. It was only after I reunited with my husband and my children that the gravity of the situation and reality set in. My husband pointed out the vomit in my hair and on my body and the fact that I had just performed mouth to mouth on a complete stranger, not to mention that I was pregnant.
That's where the true contemplation began: Did I put myself into someone else's emergency? Did I risk the health and safety of myself and my unborn child? Could I have exposed myself to disease and infection? The answer to all three is yes. But in our line of work we do that every day. If I hadn't gone into the water that day I know I would not only be disappointed in myself but I would have to live with the guilt of not saving a life when I had the ability to do so.
LASD Deputy David W. March, EOW April 29, 2002, said it best: "My goals are simple; I will always be painfully honest, work as hard as I can, learn as much as I can, and hopefully make a difference in people's lives."
I'm not saying everyone should run into the water like I did, because that's your decision and up to your abilities and experiences. That was just my reaction to the situation that presented itself. But I'll leave you with the same complex and imperfect question that I faced: What would you do?
Dep. Jenna Underwood-Nunez is a six-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department assigned to the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF).