In the aftermath of the death of a recent University of Wisconsin graduate who drowned in Lake Mendota, officials are continuing to recommend safety measures on the lake while the victim’s family says there is more to his story than may initially be apparent.
Twenty-two year-old Matthew Roelse, a May 2012 graduate of the UW School of Business, drowned on June 22 at about 2:46 a.m. while swimming with a friend. According to a UW press release, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office divers recovered him that morning around 11 a.m.
Roelse’s mother, Lori Roelse, said the general media’s response to the incident focused on alcohol use and neglected her son’s medical condition.
According to Lori Roelse, her son was diagnosed with type one diabetes at a young age and had been living with the disease for 14 years. However, he was quiet about his condition, and it was even unknown to the girl he was with the night of the incident, Lori said.
“He didn’t make a big deal of it because he didn’t want people to look at him differently,” she said.
Lori Roelse said she believes her son’s drowning was the result of hypoglycemia, but she said she can understand the public assumption of alcohol use because of his youth.
“People are going to assume that he was drunk, but he was a strong swimmer, and based by what his friend said, he was not drunk; he had all of his faculties about him,” Lori Roelse said.
According to Lori Roelse, the friend that was with her son that night described his state akin to a “medical condition,” as if he was having seizure, a symptom of hypoglycemia.
“In the news, the university press release said Matt had raised money for juvenile diabetes awareness, but anything that came out in the general media didn’t mention that he had diabetes,” Lori Roelse said.
However, Assistant Supervisor of the UW Lifesaving Station Sean Geib said regardless of this specific case, statistics often do show ties between drowning incidents and alcohol use.
For those swimming on the lake this summer, Geib, along with Public Information Officer Elise Schaffer, also suggested the use of a life vest in case of the inability to keep afloat.
“Ninety percent of all drownings occur when alcohol is involved and there are no life vests, so we suggest removing one of those factors,” Geib said. “Either don’t drink when you swim. If you drink wear a life jacket, or both — don’t drink and wear a life vest.”
Additionally, Madison Fire Department Assistant Chief Michael Popovich, who was the incident commander for the call in June, said he urges students not to swim after dark as it can be a dangerous factor and cause people to do things they would not normally do.
Lori Roelse said she also saw the time and location as conduits to her son’s death, while keeping his diabetes in mind. Had he been on shore, his hypoglycemia could have been treated with some sugar intake, she said, adding that being in the water was “especially dangerous.”
Although no new lake safety measures have been taken by the city, Popovich said lake safety should be incorporated into orientation for future UW students.
“This incident should be part of new student orientation to reinforce the dangers and the unforgiving side of our lakes,” Popovich said. “If students are challenged by peer pressure or other factors to get in the water when they shouldn’t, another life may be lost.”
In addition to wanting her son’s condition to be made known, Lori Roelse also said she wanted people to remember him as someone who loved life.
“I want people to know that he enjoyed life,” she said. “He was really into keeping the world beautiful and making it a better place.”