By Nicole Hughes
We were never supposed to leave our beach vacation early to plan a funeral for our 3-year-old son. And, yet, within the course of one week, we had driven to the beach, returned without him, and held his funeral.
Do you know that drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages 1-4 and the second leading cause in ages 1-14? Do you know that 69% of children who drown are not expected to be swimming, yet they are found in water? Do you know that a child can drown in less than one minute?
Unfortunately, I know these facts all too well. On June 10, 2018, my three year old son, Levi, drowned while on vacation in Fort Morgan, AL.
There is a misconception that drowning only happens when you are swimming. But, drowning also happens when you are 200 feet away from a pool, upstairs, eating Cheetos, wearing your neon yellow crab-hunting shirt, when you leave your mom’s side, even though you are usually Velcro-ed to her. Drowning isn’t splashing and yelling. It is silent, and it takes SECONDS.
I have always taken water safety seriously. In each of the pictures I have of my son’s final day, he is wearing a life jacket. Flying a kite with his dad? Life jacket. Eating M&M’s in a beach chair? Life jacket.
How could I have known that every parent’s worst nightmare would be my reality? It happened so quickly. I don’t know how Levi got away from us as we were cleaning up from dinner, or what lured him to go outside alone. I was the one who found him, face down, in the deep end.
Just moments before this horrific discovery, I split a brownie with him. I still had the other half of the brownie in my mouth when I jumped into the pool to grab my son. Mere moments, seconds.
We had six physicians on our trip, including my own husband. If Levi could have been saved by desperation, skill, and love, he would still be here. Yet, how did I not fully realize just how quickly a child can drown? They initiated CPR immediately, even intubated him before the ambulance arrived. But Levi could not be saved, even with this immediate response.
In the days after we lost Levi, when we were forced to stumble forward without our baby boy, I started researching. I am (was?) on my third journey of parenting a child in the 1-4 age group. Why did I not know that drowning is the leading cause of death? Of course, I knew drowning was a potential danger. We utilized life jackets, swim lessons, supervision while swimming. But why did I not know about the dangers of drowning during NON-SWIMMING times? How did I not know it took less than one minute?
Why is my mom-brain filled with internal debates about screen time, organic fruit, and sunscreen free of oxybenzone? I still cut my 9-year-old’s grapes. I buy DHA milk. I worry that the hours of YouTube my kids watch will prevent them from being functioning adults one day. These are the topics that are pushed in my direction, the worries that I have grasped onto as I navigate parenting. Well, the unfortunate irony here is that I had taken the iPhone away from my son not too long before he slipped away from us. I sure wish I had cared a little less about screen time that night.
The more I researched, the angrier I became. Oh, and I had to search. Why are discussions about drowning almost an afterthought? Background noise? This is a LEADING cause of death, and it is 100% PREVENTABLE. Yes, there are news stories, but we have become numb to these “don’t forget to watch your kids while swimming” factual articles that are regurgitated each year and the faded “no lifeguard on duty” signs stuck on a wall by a pool.
The harsh reality is that Levi’s death rests on me. These are the hardest words I will ever have to admit, but the truth is that I failed my son, failed to keep him safe. Yes, this accident happened in moments. But, the fact that I have to live with for the rest of my life is that losing Levi was preventable. I am not trying to push blame off of my shoulders. But, I sure wish I had known these statistics before June 10.
For the last month, I have fueled my grief and anger into action. Based on the research on drowning, I have created a non-profit called Levi’s Legacy. My mission is to eradicate drowning completely. You can read more about my mission (and about designated supervision) at www.levislegacy.com.
So, here I am, a grieving mother facing a future I would never have imagined. Lying in bed and sobbing will not bring him back (oh, but if it would). I don’t want this role of water-safety advocate. I want 30 seconds back on June 10. But I am determined to share these facts I so desperately wish I had known. Levi’s message has already spread, but now, it’s time to take the next step, and it is a big one.
American Academy of Pediatrics, I am asking for your help. We need you. I say this as someone who is married to a physician and who respects my own pediatrician very much. But, thousands of people have reached out to me over the last month sharing the same comment each time: “I had no idea. Why didn’t I know any of this about drowning?”
I am well aware how much a pediatrician has to cover during a well-child visit: build a relationship, answer questions, prepare for milestones, look into the ears of a squirming child. Pediatricians have thousands of topics they must be knowledgeable of and share with parents. Therefore, American Academy of Pediatrics, you play a major role in setting priorities and equipping your pediatricians with the resources they need in order to inform parents and help eliminate this preventable tragedy. Parents of young children, especially in the age range of 1-4, should be given a handout that clearly explains the statistics on drowning. On the questionnaire, when I fill out it if my child can hold a crayon, hop on one foot, or sleep through the night, there needs to be a section on water safety. American Academy of Pediatrics, you have the platform and power to reach millions. Please, please join this cause.
The AAP has a website for parents (http://www.healthychildren.org/); on July 11, 2018, in the middle of summer, do you know how many times “drowning” was displayed on the homepage? Zero. When I searched “drowning,” I found a list of 17 total items, with articles from 2017 and 2014 being at the top. These articles include information that is so dull that nobody will read it (assuming anyone searches). They include information on how to tell if your child is drowning, such as: “eyes closed / not using legs/ appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder.” Not only is this a waste of words (is a parent seriously going to go through this mental checklist before saving a child?), but it just reinforces to people the incorrect assumption that drowning means splashing and yelling.
A 3-year-old can drown in less than one minute: silently and without a struggle. The articles also fail to mention how often (the majority of times) drowning happens when not swimming. I am like any other mom: winging it, doing my best, and depending on parenting guidance from pediatricians and parenting articles. How else am I supposed to know what I am doing? Drowning needs to be addressed with as much concern as newborns sleeping on their backs to sleep, vaccinations, and car seat safety. Drowning is just as deadly and just as preventable. Drowning is a leading cause of death in children, and it needs to be treated as such. Can we please start talking about it?
I want to make it clear that hundreds of pediatricians and other medical professionals have reached out to me about Levi’s story. I am encouraged, humbled, and touched by how many of these influential people are already advocating for water safety and want to continue to be part of this solution. Thank you. I hope to get the same response from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
I used to be the parent who would read a story like this one and immediately start scanning, looking for a loophole, desperate for the detail that would exempt me from this particular nightmare ever being mine. But, it turns out, tragedy does not play fair. My son is gone. And, yet, we are choosing to live a purposeful life in the midst of this ultimate despair.
We have two daughters, Levi’s older sisters, whom he adored, and we cannot let them lose us, too. This pain is unimaginable, but every second is a CHOICE. I am choosing to breathe, choosing to advocate. The pain and darkness threaten to suffocate. But when I choose to turn on the light, I see goodness. People are hearing Levi’s message, questioning why they didn’t know the truth about drowning, taking action.
We have a chance to change the future, to save sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Trust me, I never imagined myself in the role of water-safety advocate until I was thrust into it by my grief. Drowning is a leading cause of death and is 100% preventable. We can do better. We can fix this for our children.