Parents

Drowning really is silent: What parents need to know this summer

I used to read stories about near-drownings (or worse) every summer and think, “I’m so glad that didn’t happen to me.” Then it did.

I always watched my kids, so I thought I was safe. Then, last summer, I found my toddler unconscious at the bottom of a hot tub, and I realized just how quickly a child can drown.

I wanted to share this so other parents can learn from what happened to us.

This is our story.

Rachel Barton Lister

I ran into the ER with mismatched clothes and wet hair.

“My daughter was just brought in. She was in a pool accident,” I said.

A pool accident. That’s what they’d called it when my friend’s little girl drowned a few years earlier. I wondered what it meant at the time but now, I couldn’t bring myself to say, “My daughter almost drowned."

We’d celebrated my oldest son’s birthday with a pool party. Everyone had a great time and my 2-year-old daughter loved splashing around in the water in her life jacket.

We are careful around water. I thought I knew how quickly an accident could happen.

As we were packing up to leave, I removed her life jacket, wrapped her up in a towel and put her on a deck chair.

“I go hot tub," she said.

“No,” I told her. The hot tub was one of her favorite things, but I knew that once she got in, it would take me forever to get her back out again. “It’s time to go home now."

I left her sitting on the deck chair as I packed up a few things. We had six adults standing there so I felt like I could relax a bit. After all, what could go wrong with so much supervision?

The truth is, you can never relax when you have kids around the water. Never.

A few minutes later, something jerked me to attention and I looked around for my daughter. She was nowhere to be seen. I scanned the pool first but she wasn’t there. The gate was open so I thought she may have wandered out, and I worried about cars. I nearly went there first.

I am so glad I didn’t.

There are 4-foot tall bushes between the pool and the hot tub; I ran over there to check the other side. What I saw as I came around the bushes horrified me.

My daughter was face-down in the center of the hot tub ... and I had no idea how long she’d been in there.

Rachel Barton Lister

I screamed to my husband, “She’s in the water!” and went running for the hot tub, jumping in fully clothed.

I don’t know if it was the shock of the situation or the fact that I was only a month past a c-section and hadn’t fully recovered yet, but I couldn’t get my body to move the way I wanted. I couldn’t get my daughter’s head above the water fast enough. I’d managed to push her closer to the edge and by then my husband was at the edge. He was holding one of the twins and reaching into the water with his other hand.

They always say that time slows down in an emergency but it’s an odd sensation when it happens to you. What must have only been a matter of seconds felt like an eternity. My husband quickly passed off the baby and began frantically working on my daughter.

She wasn’t breathing.

That image will stay with me for as long as I live. Her eyes were open, but there was no life in them.

I’ve taken many CPR classes in the past but it’s been a while since I had a refresher and I froze. What was I supposed to do? What was the first step? There was no room for any thought in my mind except that my child was not breathing.

My husband did a Heimlich maneuver of sorts and pushed some water out of her tiny body. Reflexively, she began to vomit.

[Editor's Note: The Heimlich maneuver is not recommended for drowning victims, and may actually hurt. This link has more information about how to help a child drowning victim.]

Finally, she coughed and took a breath.

We had 911 on the line and, right or not, since she was breathing we felt like we could get her to the hospital faster than we could direct the ambulance into our community pool. My husband grabbed her and rushed to the hospital.

At the ER, they took me straight back. My daughter was sitting on my husband’s lap on the gurney in a large room surrounded by a team of doctors.

Her oxygen levels were in the 80s. That was bad, they told me. Her carbon dioxide levels were high. She had fluid in her lungs.

I was able to give my daughter a quick hug. When she saw me she teared up and with her sweet little voice said, “Mommy."

Rachel Barton Lister

The doctor said they needed to intubate her to help her breathe while her lungs healed. He kept telling me she was going to be fine, but I didn’t believe him yet.

My daughter was sedated and intubated and we were told she’d need to be life-flighted to the children’s hospital.

The team from the children’s hospital arrived, and after stabilizing her they loaded her up and wheeled her away, leaving my husband and me standing in the hallway holding my daughter’s wet bathing suit as strangers took my daughter to the helicopter that would fly away without us.

How does this happen? It took only minutes.

There were plenty of adults around.

None of us heard a thing.

Most moms have seen the “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” post. We’ve heard that drowning is silent.

Rachel Barton Lister / Matt Warner

But until you see how quickly and quietly it can happen, it doesn’t really sink in.

My daughter made no noise. She couldn’t. She didn’t splash. She didn’t yell for help. We were all standing ten feet away while she drowned.

At the hospital they told us they see the worst case scenarios at family gatherings where there are plenty of people to supervise. Everyone thinks someone else is watching. Everyone thinks they can relax.

We got off very, VERY lucky. The doctor told us my daughter likely had another 30 seconds before her heart stopped. When I think of how close things were, I get chills.

After 24 hours on the ventilator and another 24 hours in the hospital for observation, my daughter was able to come home with us, but not before yelling at her nurse for pulling off the tape that held her IV’s in place.

Today she’s every bit as stubborn, smart, and wonderful as she was before her accident. Whenever I work up the courage to go back to the pool with my kids, you had better believe that I will not be taking my eyes off of them for a second.

You cannot relax around kids and water. Drowning can happen in seconds. It’s quick and it’s quiet and it can happen to your child.

Fortunately, our experience had a happy ending. But we’re all feeling a bit traumatized, and that experience is going to stay with me forever. The water is never going to look quite the same.

This post first appeared on Rachel’s blog, Busy Mommy Media.

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