A tragedy brought Rhonda Milner to the aquatics industry, and in less than a year, she has been able to use the power of her story to bring attention to an often overlooked killer.

Milner lost her 25-year-old son, Gene “Whitner” Milner III, apparently to what’s known as shallow water blackout. Shallow water blackout happens when a swimmer passes out without warning while underwater, after “extreme” prolonged breath-holding preceded by hyperventilation. Many engage in this type of breath-holding as a fitness or training practice, and those who drown as a result often are young, healthy and strong swimmers, much like Milner’s son.

Whitner died on April 16, 2011. Prior to losing him, Rhonda, a former practicing physician, knew nothing about shallow water blackout. But in just a few months she was able to establish Shallow Water Blackout Prevention, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the issue. Information about shallow water blackout is available via the group’s Website.

Milner is using the power of the Internet and social media to promote better warning signs and training, and she has connected with political leaders and industry experts. These include Tom Griffiths, founder of Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College, Pa., and leaders of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance Last fall she spoke at a number of industry events, including the National Recreation and Park Association Congress. This year she will be sharing her son’s story at the NDPA Symposium and the inaugural conference of the Association of Aquatic Professionals.

Addressing shallow water blackout is a tall order, but it’s not the only thing on Milner’s plate. A 1980 graduate of the Emory University School of Medicine, she is currently back in school, finishing up coursework to obtain a graduate degree in professional counseling from Richmond Graduate University. In addition, she is working on publishing her first book, titled The Signature of God.

book is about finding spirituality in the everyday world, and ultimately it is Milner’s faith that keeps her going.

“I’ve seen lives transformed, and that gives witness to the power of faith,” she says. Milner, now  in her late 50s, developed her faith partly through the example of her grandmother, and it gives her a sense of peace that has carried her through life’s ups and downs, including the loss of her son and a number of other difficult situations.

In building Shallow Water Blackout Prevention, Milner is supported by her family, including her husband, Gene (“Dusty”), and children Kathryn, Cason and Helen (“Scottie”). She is using the experience she gained when she launched another nonprofit, New Leash on Life Pet Rescue, in 2005. 

“That experience gave me the understanding that you can change things,” Milner says. 

Ultimately, with Shallow Water Blackout Prevention, she hopes to change things in aquatics, and prevent anyone else from losing a loved one the way that she has.