I need to share this… Because I feel like it is now my mission to make sure every parent knows how easily it can happen to your child. I also need to tell this story to process the event and allow my mistake to be a teaching moment.
Monday, August 6th my 3 1/2 year old son had a non-fatal drowning incident. My son, twin daughters and I were visiting my family in St. Louis last week, and Monday afternoon we decided to beat the heat at a local city pool. Three other adults, plus myself accompanied my 3 kiddos to the pool and we arrived at 3:45pm. We found a shady spot near the toddler splash area and proceeded to lotion and suit up. I had just warned everyone that Oz is very confident and comfortable in the water, but CAN NOT SWIM. Oz was the first one ready and was very excited to get playing. We were right next to the splash area where there were sprayers and fountains, and NO standing water. So, I told him: “go ahead buddy, we will be right there.” Those words were the biggest mistake of my life and I will forever hear them echoing in my head. At this point we had been at the pool maybe 5 minutes. With in a few moments I realized that Oz didn’t go to explore the splash pad and that I couldn’t see him anywhere. I ran toward the water playground area (which was ankle deep at the entry but got progressively deeper to about 4’ deep a the opposite end). I was calling his name, walking around the huge play tower, looking into the water slide, and asking lifeguards if they had seen him… I didn’t find him. Trying to stay calm, I proceeded towards one of the other pool areas thinking something else might have caught his eye. This was one of those pools with several separate pool areas. That is when I heard the whistles. The lifeguards were clearing the pool… I thought, adult swim time? Then, I heard a mother explaining to her child why they were clearing the pool, “a little boy is drowning.”… ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod - SHIT!!!
I ran as fast as I could towards a crowd of people at the side of the pool. I saw my mom, stepdad and uncle with the twins, standing near the crowd. Then, I saw Oz’s little water shoes on his little feet. He was on the side of the pool, next to the lifeguard stand, right near the play tower, with several lifeguards performing CPR on his little body. He was blue, lifeless, convulsing, and his blank eyes rolled around in his head. I pushed through the crowd and tried to hold his hand, but they asked me to stay back so they could work. Sobbing, I kneeled on the hard concrete wondering what was going to happen. Was I watching my son die? Would he wake up? Would he be ok? After 2 rounds of CPR, the lifeguards rolled him onto his side and he vomited, then started to scream. I was so relieved to hear that sound! At this point we had only been at the pool for 10 minutes, at the most, but it felt like an eternity. After a minute of screaming he released what looked like a gallon of water from his stomach, and then continued screaming. I looked over and saw the feet of the paramedics approaching. I had heard someone say that it only takes them 3.5 minutes to get to the pool. Which means from the moment they saw him floating in the pool and called 911 to the moment they arrived was only a few moments. By this point, Oz was breathing on his own and able to make eye contact with me a little bit. I was asked to pick him up and get him onto the stretcher. I have never been so happy to hold my little boy in my life.
My uncle walked with them out to the ambulance while I got my clothes back on and got my wallet and phone. I got to the ambulance and they were checking his vitals and putting an oxygen mask on him. My uncle told me that he was responding to commands and knew who he was - all great signs. At this point I realized I needed to let Matt, who was still home in St Paul, know what was going on… So I asked my mom to call him since my attention was focused on Oz. They placed an IV and we headed for the hospital. It was rush hour traffic and, unbelievably, no one was pulling over! Oz just wanted to close his eyes and sleep, I assume this was his response to the shock. But, we kept him up and somewhat engaged, although he was in a daze. I finally talked to Matt from the ambulance and let him know that Oz seemed fine and I was pretty sure he would be ok. Unfortunately, Oz wouldn’t talk to his daddy on the phone, but was able to hear his voice.
We got to the ER and they checked him over and immediately seemed to think everything was ok. All his blood work looked normal and his chest x-rays were clean and clear, which means that no water entered his lungs. Which also means he wasn’t in respiratory distress for very long. Protocol says that the person must be monitored for 8 hours after the incident to be sure that no water remains in the lungs and that no infections have developed. Something about chemical changes that can occur when water gets trapped in there. So, he was admitted to the hospital for the night. By this time I knew he was ok. He was starting to be a bit more talkative. We watched Toy Story 2 twice before getting moved to a room for the night, so they could continue further monitoring and Oz quickly went to sleep. Matt decided to fly in that night and arrived shortly after midnight, SO happy to see and hold and kiss his little boy. I slept with Oscar in his hospital bed all night.
He woke up in the morning, rolled over and said, “Mommy, I’m all better!”. That’s all I needed to hear. He was happy to see his daddy had arrived too. They were talking about what had happened. Oscar was able to give us his brief account of what happened: he was walking in the water near the playground, the “big big big cup” was dumping the water out, it scared him and he was trying to get away from it and he just kept going under the water. Simple as that - he had gone in the shallow end of the wading pool and walked towards the deep end, getting in over his head. He doesn’t seem to remember anything else. I’m sure it was terrifying and it’s probably for the best that he doesn’t have to relive it. He is to young to realize the seriousness of what happened, but I do and I won’t ever forget it. The image of his lifeless little legs and water shoes, and his screams will be with me forever. I also hope that every person, adult and child, who was there at the pool, and witnessed what happened, will use it as a teaching moment. I was told that no one got back into the pool after we left, not because they closed, but probably because everyone was so frightened by what they just witnessed. I also hope that everyone that knows me or reads this post will take the lessons I learned that day: talk to your children about water safety, always have adult eyes on kids in water, and most importantly be prepared with infant and child CPR training.
I keep replaying the events, asking myself what I could have done differently. Everyone keeps telling me it’s not my fault, accidents happen. But I could have made some different choices that would have prevented this. First of all, I should not have told him to go ahead without me - those words haunt me. Second, we had never been to this pool before, so it was unfamiliar. He had no reason to know the depths of the different areas of the pool and he didn’t know about the giant bucket of water that dumps out over the playground every few minutes. I should not have let him think he could explore on his own. I assumed he would stay near us, but I didn’t specify that. I should have told him to wait until everyone was ready. Third and most importantly, it happened in an instant. I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off of him for even a minute. The stakes are too high, especially at a crowded public pool.
I’ve though about a few other things over the last few days. What if something like this had happened while we were at the cabin, without trained lifeguards standing by? Would I be able to resuscitate him as quickly and efficiently as the lifeguards? Being far away from a hospital and any trained first responders, the responsibility would be solely on us… and that is scary. I am so thankful to have been at a pool with well trained lifeguards, who knew what to do, and did it right. Oz didn’t have any bruising or broken ribs, which is a common result of CPR, especially on a small child. I was a lifeguard myself in high school and I’m not sure I would have been capable of taking the actions that those young boys did. Having to perform CPR is not a common occurrence for most lifeguards. A manager at the pool told me that last year the entire pool management company, which deals with hundreds of pools in the St. Louis and Kansas City Area, only had one CPR incident… ONE!!!! My father, aunt, brother and I were all life guards at one point or another, my grandparents had a pool in their back yard and I did as well… And never once have any of us been anywhere close to a near drowning incident. Was it just luck? Maybe. But I learned to swim at a very young age, safety around water was always communicated and the adults around were always attentive and actively paying attention. And being prepared for the worst helped too.
On Wednesday we visited the fire station to say thank you to the team. We delivered some cupcakes and got a personal tour of the fire trucks.
Everyone thought that was really cool. We also visited the pool. Unfortunately the lifeguards responsible for saving Oz were not there. But we left them a letter of thanks and more cupcakes.
Oscar asked if he could go in, and said he would stay over in the baby area this time because he doesn’t know how to swim yet. We told him maybe next time…the pool wasn’t even open yet! It was healing to be there again and to try to understand what happened.
My mission now is to share this story and make sure that everyone, parent, grandparent, anyone who spends time with children knows some basic first aid and CPR. Please. I was fortunate enough to be at a pool with lifeguards who did all the right things, but that is not always the case. It doesn’t take much water for something like this to happen- the bath tub, a back yard pool, the splash pad, or a lake can be dangerous for any aged child. It also doesn’t take more than a few moments (a witness told the lifeguard that they saw him “swimming” and 15 seconds later he was floating). I never thought this would happen to me. For those of you who haven’t seen or read this article… Please read it. It hits the nail on the head. http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/. Drowning doesn’t look like drowning in movies. Oz doesn’t really know how to swim without a life jacket or floaties, so my guess is that person that saw him “swimming” actually was watching him struggle and drown. We will also be starting Oz in additional swim lessons, as soon as possible. He has taken some swim lessons before, but they were focused on getting him comfortable with the water, not teaching actual swimming skills. Also, we will be getting right back in to the water. I don’t want to give him (or me) the chance to become overly fearful of being around water (a little fearful is ok).
In the end, the only thing that matters is that our boy is still with us. He is safe, he is happy, and he is alive. Everyday I hear news stories that end differently, tragically. My heart can’t stand to imagine what those parents feel. We came so close to knowing, and we are so lucky. Thanks for listening and feel free to share. If you are interested in learning about drowning, water safety, or taking a CPR class, here are some good resources to get started. Don’t wait, just do it.
Here are some facts:
- About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger.
- For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.
- More than 50% of drowning victims treated in emergency departments require hospitalization or transfer for further care. These nonfatal drowning injuries can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning (e.g., permanent vegetative state).
- Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30% died from drowning.
- Among children ages 1 to 4, most drownings occur in home swimming pools.
- Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children 1-4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies (birth defects).
- Among those 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.
- Many adults and children report that they can’t swim. Research has shown that participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children aged 1 to 4 years.
- Drowning can happen quickly and quietly anywhere there is water (such as bathtubs, swimming pools, buckets), and even in the presence of lifeguards.
- Seconds count—learn CPR. CPR performed by bystanders has been shown to save lives and improve outcomes in drowning victims. The more quickly CPR is started, the better the chance of improved outcomes.
(data found http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html)
A link to the RedCross site to help you find a CPR/first aid class near you. http://www.redcross.org/takeaclass/234335323