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5-year-old snorkeler: ‘I know how I drown-ded’

Nicholas Rilling went into a three-day coma after spending some 8 minutes underwater without oxygen during a snorkeling mishap on a family vacation: “That thing that helps you breathe was under water ... and I was at the bottom of the ocean.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Nicholas Rilling is a bright-eyed, active 5-year-old, normal in every way. What’s remarkable — miraculous, says his mother — is that he’s that way today after a three-day coma that resulted from his being underwater without oxygen for some 8 minutes.

“I know how I drown-ded,” Nick volunteered to TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York. “That thing that helps you breathe. It was under water … and I was at the bottom of the ocean.”

“That thing” was a snorkel, and the bottom of the ocean was a seemingly harmless 2½ feet deep just offshore at a beach resort in Puerto Rico.

Looking for Nemo
It was Oct. 17, and the Maryland family of six — Cynthia and Kent Rilling, twin 9-year-old sons Anthony and Christopher, Nick, and 2-year-old Andrea — were enjoying a vacation at a beach resort in Puerto Rico, where Cynthia Rilling was born and raised.

Snorkeling was one of the activities available, and the kids wanted to see colorful fish like they had seen in the movie “Finding Nemo.” But before venturing into the ocean, Kent Rilling, a physician’s assistant, had his three sons practice in the hotel pool until he was certain they all knew what they were doing.

When they took their new skills into the ocean, they used the buddy system. Kent teamed up with Christopher, while Anthony and Nick made up another team.

The water was shallow, and there seemed to be no danger. But when Kent looked up to make sure everyone was OK, he saw Anthony on shore adjusting his gear — and couldn’t find Nick.

“My dad said, ‘Where’s Nick? Where’s Nick?’ ” Anthony told NBC News in an interview recorded at the family’s home in Maryland.

It was late afternoon, and the sun glancing off the water made it impossible for Kent to see where his youngest son was. Anthony, meanwhile, rushed back into the water and found his brother floating face-up on the bottom, his eyes open, his body motionless and unresponsive.  Anthony pulled him up, and his father took over.

Fast action
As a physician’s assistant, Kent Rilling knew just how grave the situation was. His son had been deprived of oxygen for as long as 8 minutes.

“He just looked gray and his lips were black. And I just knew that this was not going to be good,” Kent Rilling said. “It was really hard to see my son in the condition that he was.” But then his medical training kicked in: “Something just took over. We scooped him up, ran him up to the beach and just started CPR. It was second nature.”

The rescue and first aid seemed to go on forever. “It was kind of in a slow-motion experience,” Kent told Vieira. “But then once we got to the ICU, that is where the dad in me was able to come back and just hug and kiss my son once the ICU got him stabilized.”

Nick was placed in a medically induced coma. For three days, he remained unconscious, his breathing assisted by a ventilator tube. The whole time, beginning when her husband brought Nick to the beach and started CPR as a crowd of other vacationers clustered around him, Cynthia Rilling kept taking pictures and videos of the drama.

“As desperate as I was, I knew in my heart he was going to live,” Cynthia Rilling explained to Vieira. “There was no way God was going to take him from us. It was one of those motherly instincts … And I just said, ‘I’m going to take pictures so he can see what happened. And as he grows older, he can see the experience he went through.’ ”

Bright light and a dove
The family kept a prayerful vigil at his bedside, talking to him, hoping for a response. Finally, on the third day, his parents asked him if he wanted to see his favorite television show, “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“We were looking for a way to see if there was something going on,” Cynthia Rilling told Vieira. “He nodded his head yes. That was the first time we knew that he was going to be OK. After that, little by little, he woke up.”

After five days, Nick was released from the hospital, showing no ill effects from his near-death experience. Back at the hotel, the staff organized a “rebirth party” for him, and Nick got to watch SpongeBob.

He told his parents that when he was underwater and drowning, he saw a bright light. God, in the form of a dove, pulled him out of the water, he told them. He drew them a picture of what he saw.

Kent Rilling told Vieira that their story is a cautionary tale for everyone.

“No matter how well you train your children, no matter how diligent you are in watching your children, this happened in a split moment — completely unanticipated,” he said. “There was nothing dangerous around us. It just happened in a moment.

“Horrifying as it is, it’s a wonderful outcome. We’re so happy to have this little — my hero — with us.”