Kids' health

Toddler's near-fatal 'secondary drowning' a warning to parents

June 2, 2014 at 11:33 AM ET

In a recent blog post gone viral, Lindsay Kujawa warned other parents about her toddler’s near fatal accident, which resulted in what she says was a diagnosis of "secondary drowning" — an uncommon and potentially dangerous condition. 

In May, Kujawa, who writes the “Delighted Momma” blog, had been sitting near a spa with her almost 2-year-old son, Ronin. Suddenly, the young boy dropped into the swirling water, his head bobbing up and down. She was by his side in seconds, lifting him to safety.

Video: Blake and Kathy Collingsworth, who lost their son when he tragically drowned, and Dr. Julie Capiola, a pediatrician, join TODAY to warn viewers of the dangers associated with swimming, and offer suggestions on how you can keep your loved ones safe.

“I thought, ‘please let him be OK,’” Kujawa, 28, told TODAY.com.

Ronin sputtered and coughed up some water. Upset by the experience “he cried for about 45 seconds,” Kujawa said. But then he calmed down and the Murrieta, California, mom thought he was fine.

But nearly an hour later, after the two returned home, she noticed her son was exhausted and didn’t seem like himself. 

“You know what your child is like when he’s tired and this was totally different,” she recalled. “This was beyond tired and I just felt he wasn’t right. Even when Ronin is tired, he’s cranky. But he didn’t have a lot of emotion.”

Kujawa became worried when Ronin started coughing again. She reached his pediatrician who urged Kujawa and her husband to rush Ronin to the emergency room where doctors X-rayed the little boy and found fluid in his lungs.

Her instincts may have saved her child’s life. Doctors later told Kujawa the incident had sparked a pneumonia-like condition in his lungs and that he was struggling to breathe. 

Lindsay Kujawa's son Ronin
Lindsay Kujawa
Lindsay Kujawa's son Ronin suffered 'secondary drowning" after slipping into a spa.

Kujawa “did everything right," said Dr. Mark Morocco, a professor of emergency medicine at the Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “She was watching her kid around the water and as soon as something went wrong she pulled the kid out.”

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children, ages one to four. Nonfatal or "secondary drowning" — when there has been an event in the water and the child has been fine for a time — is very rare, and is actually a pneumonia-like condition. "Secondary drowning" is often confused with "dry drowning," which occurs when a person in the water panics and there is a laryngeal spasm and asphyxia occurs, but there is no water in the lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Morocco says that the term “secondary drowning” is a misnomer.

“It can happen if water from a pool gets into your lungs, but also if you aspirate a piece of food or vomit,” said Morocco. “The important thing for parents to remember is that any time your child has trouble breathing and it lasts longer than expected and the child begins to behave in a bizarre way, you need to go to the ER.”

Even something as small as a peanut, if it’s sucked down into the lungs, can spark a reaction that results in fluid buildup, Morocco said. “The body makes its own fluid, and when it hits a critical mass you start to have trouble breathing.”

And that’s why kids’ behavior starts to become odd: They’ve become oxygen-deprived.

Most kids come out of it OK. But they have to be brought to the ER and kept under observation until they recover, said Morocco.

According to Dr. Alexis Topjian, an attending physician in the pediatric ICU at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, symptoms of "secondary drowning" include:

  • Lethargy
  • Coughing after the event is over
  • The child is not acting like himself
  • A change in the color of the lips 
  • A change in breathing 

“They might be breathing faster or pulling air in so you can see their ribs sticking out when they breathe — those can be signs that a child is working harder to breathe," says Topjian. "Most people aren’t aware that the danger isn’t necessarily over once a kid has been pulled out of the water."

Symptoms can progress in the hours after a near-drowning.. 

“A lot of times [parents] don’t know they need to bring the child to medical attention," says Topjian. "A child can come out looking OK, but this can occur hours afterwards. It needs close watching.”

If not, the consequences can be dire.

Ronin was fine in the end. But Kujawa wrote the blog to alert other parents. “The reason I shared my story was not to scare parents, but to tell them about something I didn’t know about,” she said. “The biggest thing I can tell parents and caregivers is that you have to know and trust your instincts. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with being over cautious.”

“The pediatrician told us the next day that we were fortunate we didn’t put him down to sleep,” Kujawa said. “Sometimes kids die and the parents don’t know what happened to their kid. They just don’t wake up. That’s terrifying.”

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic and the recently released Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing's Greatest Rivalry.

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