For weeks, Pip had been begging to swim in Mimi and Papa’s Pool, but it was still too chilly. Quarantine included daily visits to my parent’s driveway where we could safely socially distance. Either in the bike trailer or the jogging stroller, Pip (3), Harry (18 months), and I would belt out Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” but of course sung by Johnny, the crooning gorilla, from the hit movie Sing.
The weekend of April 26th I had been texting with my mom about the temperature of the pool. 84 degrees was always the magic number in my house growing up. I have vivid childhood memories of pulling the thermometer out of the skimmer, flicking off the June bugs, and watching my dad hold the thermometer up and tell us the temp. We were still socially distancing from my parents, but we all agreed it was safe for them to sit outside and watch us swim once it was warm enough. It just so happened that on Sunday, April 27th, my mom said it was finally 84! I told her we would head over on our bikes after the boys’ naps.
Pip is no stranger to water. He has taken swim lessons the two summers prior, and knew Mimi and Papa’s strict rules about the water. You see, my father is the founding member of the safety police. When I played soccer in the ’90s and early 2000s, I was the only person with a mouth guard. Asking to ride a jet ski? I would have been more successful asking for a suitcase of cash! Roller skates, scooter, or bike without a helmet? Dream on! So when it came to swimming, the rules were etched in stone.
When we arrived at the pool, Pip went over to the chest of swim toys and items and grabbed his puddle jumper. He excitedly yelled, “Papa, watch me jump in!” My parents sat back visiting, while Ryan and I played and watched both of our boys swim. Harry was finished swimming and had become interested in something on the other side of the yard, so I got out of the pool with him, and let him toddle across the grass.
Pip asked for a snack so I grabbed a squeeze applesauce. Ryan stayed in the pool, and Pip sat in the tanning area, a 10-by-6-foot area of the pool that you can sit it in and splash around.
Within a matter of 10 seconds our world flipped upside down.
I noticed the puddle jumper floating, and instantaneously my husband letting out a blood curdling scream, “PIP! PIP! PIP!” My dad screamed, “No! No!” It was a primal echo that alerts every hair on your body that something has gone terribly wrong, a desperate denial of what is unfolding in front of you, a sound that is burned on my heart.
Ryan cleared the side of the pool with Pip in his arms. He was limp, unconscious, and blue in the lips. He immediately started mouth to mouth.
I put Harry next to the back door and sprinted to a cell phone on the other side of the pool to call 911 as Ryan continued to work on Pip. I hysterically rattled off my parents’ address and attempted to string together what was happening. After six rounds of mouth to mouth, I saw Pip’s eyes roll back in his head and he opened his mouth to vomit water.
I threw Harry at my dad as Pip started crying. The fire department arrived first with EMS shortly after. As I cradled my sweet Pip he cried, “Mommy.” It was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.
The vomiting, disorientation, and severe lethargy continued. At this point we were unsure of Pip’s neurological state, and I was quickly strapped to a stretcher with Pip cocooned on top of me with an oxygen mask.
We were admitted to the hospital because Pip’s pulse oxygen wasn’t high enough without additional oxygen. Additionally, he was observed for neurological inconsistencies and to monitor his lungs. He spent a total of 16 hours on oxygen support to maintain a healthy pulse oxygen level. It is an absolute miracle that Pip walked out of the hospital a couple of days later asking if he could have ice cream for dinner.
Most water related accidents don’t end like ours did. According to the Centers of Disease Control, drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in children ages 1-4. Of children who are treated in the hospital for non-fatal submersion injuries, more than 50% of them require hospitalization and have injuries that result in permanent memory loss, severe brain damage, loss of basic functioning, and vegetative state.
The thought of these statistics are unbearable, yet this is the painful reality for many families. Maybe you are thinking, “How does this happen if you are watching your kids swim?” or “This is terrible, but this wouldn’t happen to us.” Please understand that water doesn’t discriminate. My husband was in the water with our son when this happened!
When I reflect on what we could have done differently that day, I am stumped. No one was drinking, no one was on their cell phone, no one was swimming unsupervised, and it still happened! How quickly a child slips underwater is terrifying and life altering. Here are a few takeaways that did help things turn out the way they did, and things we could have done better.
Get CPR training, and keep it current.
Receiving baby/infant/child CPR training, and keeping it up-to-date is non-negotiable. My husband and I took every baby class offered which included CPR. My husband performing mouth to mouth and checking his airway is what saved our son’s life. My husband didn’t panic because he knew what to do. Time isn’t on your side in a drowning accident. Every second counts. Ryan didn’t hesitate. Again, this is non-negotiable, and you can get your certification online.
Have cellphones close at hand.
Have a cellphone in close proximity to the pool. Usually we leave our bags in the house, but it just so happened that on this particular day I brought our bag out. Additionally, practice using your emergency call setting or know the passcode of the person’s cellphone you are swimming with. I was disoriented and shaking so hard, I don’t know if I would have been able to use the emergency call setting. I knew my husband’s passcode. Between having the cellphone in close proximity and knowing the passcode, EMS was able to arrive that much sooner.
Know the address of the house or establishment where you are swimming.
Yes, GPS and tracing exists, but it is not 100%.
Remember that puddle jumpers aren’t guaranteed protection.
Our son was wearing a puddle jumper five seconds before the accident. He removed it to reach for something underwater. If you are thinking, “it must not have been on correctly” then you don’t know the sorcery and abilities of a three-year-old on a mission. The puddle jumper created a false sense of buoyancy and when he shimmied it off, Pip basically forgot he needed to use his legs. Everyone should speak to their pediatrician about puddle jumpers and what is best for your child.
Designate a ‘water watcher.’
We could have designated a water watcher. Learn more about that here.
Our sweet Pip is thriving. He has vivid memories of the accident, but has slowly started enjoying the water again — this is mostly in thanks to our incredibly patient swim instructor. As parents, we have had many sleepless nights, tears, and deep places of oppressive guilt. The coronavirus added to the trauma, as only one of us was allowed at the hospital with Pip.
The sight of our son’s lifeless body will live inside of us forever. Water doesn’t care who you are, if you have never been swimming, or if you have been a thousand times. Remember that it can, and will, change your life forever.