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The Alarming Truth About Child Drownings in North Texas

Why water safety dives deeper than swim lessons and water watchers

When Lori Johnson saw her 3-year-old daughter facedown and motionless at the bottom of their new pool two summers ago, a “superhuman” strength overcame her. The Flower Mound mom of five performed nonstop CPR on her nonresponsive and blue-lipped daughter, Jessica, until paramedics arrived an excruciating five minutes and one second after she called 911.

Jessica was induced into a hypothermic coma at Children’s Health Dallas to reduce the swelling of her brain from lack of oxygen. She awoke with neurological injuries that weren’t deemed severe following five days in a coma. After more than a year of speech and cognitive therapy to regain full brain functionality, Jessica recently graduated from treatment and plans to start kindergarten in the fall as a typical 5-year-old.

Jessica’s story isn’t uncommon in North Texas. In 2015, 75 Texas children drowned, nearly half of which occurred in pools. Dallas County accounted for nine of those deaths — more than any other county in the state. Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties accounted for another 12 deaths. So far in 2016, 16 children in Texas have already drowned in pools, lakes, beaches, small bodies of water and a jacuzzi. And according to statistics, most tragedies occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Drowning can happen to anyone

It’s easy to think that kids drown as a result of neglectful parenting. Studies show that 77 percent of kids who drowned were seen by an adult less than five minutes before the incident. Drowning happens to all races and all levels of socioeconomic status. Most kids, like Jessica, drown while under adult supervision.

In Jessica’s case, the toddler went inside, took off her Puddle Jumper (a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket-floaty hybrid) to use the bathroom, walked back outside (without the flotation device) where three adults were supervising and jumped into the pool unnoticed.

Drowning accounts for the second highest number of deaths for kids ages 1−4, second only to congenital birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And for every child that drowns, five more head to the emergency room for non-fatal submersion injuries — often resulting in long-term issues.

Kids are naturally curious around water, so parents must do everything in their power to prevent hazards, says Starrett Keele, a firefighter and paramedic in Fort Worth and safety educator for the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition (FWDPC).

When the Johnsons installed their pool, they outfitted it with a cover, fixed extra locks on all doors leading to the backyard and taught their kids never to go outside without adult supervision. And Lori enrolled Jessica in private swim lessons after being less than satisfied with her progress in the group lessons she and her siblings were taking.

On the day of the incident, the Johnsons had a friend and her two children over to swim. Seven kids played in the pool while three adults watched. The adults took turns supervising swimmers from the water’s edge. While Jessica’s father was standing next to the pool counting heads and scanning the water, he was distracted for just a few seconds, answering a question for another child when Jessica jumped in without her jacket.

“Every single drowning is preventable,” says Pam Cannell, executive director at FWDPC.

Minimize what can’t be eliminated

So the inevitable question: How can something so preventable happen so disturbingly often?

“Parents might relax, thinking that they’ve done absolutely everything [to prevent drownings],” Johnson says. “But regardless of the precautions you have in place, drownings still happen.”

So what can parents do?

Enroll kids in water safety classes early. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until a child is 1 to start swim lessons, area swim schools and instructors disagree. Lessons go beyond stroke and breathing techniques to incorporate water safety and drowning prevention. For instance, tots learn to flip onto their backs and kick to navigate themselves back to the wall or steps; even infants repeat monkey walks on the wall and climbing out of the pool in weekly sessions.

Know your child’s capabilities in the water, advises Linda DeSanders, director of the Texas Drowning Prevention Alliance (TXDPA) and president of Dolfin Swim School. If your child swam well last summer, but they’ve been on dry land for months, they’ll be rusty.

And drowning prevention means more than enrolling kids in swim lessons.

“What prevents drownings? Education, education, education,” DeSanders says. “Supervision is the biggest problem. You are your child’s lifeguard at all times.”

Elect a water watcher for the pool. Adults should take 15-minute shifts standing or sitting at the edge of the body of water, counting heads, keeping all swimmers in sight and remaining hyperaware, Cannell suggests. Designating a specific supervisor prevents diffusion of responsibility, the technical term for a phenomenon where the more adults vested with the power to take charge in a situation, the less likely that any one adult will actually take charge. The same holds true for the pool: If seven parents are sitting, chatting and “watching” the pool, for example, the more likely that each of those moms lets her guard down since there are so many eyes on the pool.

Parents cannot lounge on a chair reading a magazine or checking social media and expect to hear a threat, Keele says.

“Movies injure people because they make them think that drowning is dramatic,” Keele says. “In movies, you hear hollering and splashing, but in real life, drowning is silent and fast.”

And because drownings are typically silent, Mimi Conner, owner of Aqua~Fit Swim& Fitness Family Wellness Center in Plano, says parents should always check the pool or other standing water first anytime a child goes missing.

Learn CPR, Cannell advises, which can make the difference between life and death when preventative measurers fail. Jessica’s survival depended solely on her mom’s CPR training.

Dozens of organizations around Dallas-Fort Worth offer free or low cost CPR lessons, including many area YMCAs and fire stations. The American Red Crossprovides several CPR classes, including an online version. To find CPR lessons near you, visit the Parenting section of our DFWEverything directory at dfwchild.com/everything.

Find an advocacy group such as the TXDPA or the FWDPC. Through the latter, families attend two-week programs that teach kids how to swim and parents how to effectively supervise and perform CPR, all for a nominal fee (less than $10). As a bonus, kids get a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket and free swim lessons at local YMCAs after completing the program.

Different settings, different threats

Drownings happen in any amount of water. Last year in Texas, kids drowned in bathtubs, pools, lakes, ponds, beaches, even septic tanks, buckets and storm drains. Take notice of potential dangers around your home, property and neighborhood, Keele advises. From washing machines to mop buckets, standing water is a draw for kids.

Texas Health and Safety Code requires that all residential pools (including apartment pools) have a fence at least four feet tall surrounding the pool area and a self-latching gate. But these regulations are not foolproof. If you have a large backyard with a pool, no regulation requires you to have a separate fence around the yard and pool. And if your pool was built before 1994, it is essentially exempt from most regulations.

It’s up to parents to create safer environments in and around their homes. Remember, bath toys, pool chemicals, the funny noise the washing machine makes can lure kids into water, Cannell advises.

And always know the situation where you’re sending your child. Ask how many supervising adults know CPR if the kids are heading to a pool party or summer camp, suggests Richardson dad Berk Guvelioglu.

In 2012, Guvelioglu sent his then 4-year-old son, Kerem, to a day camp with swimming lessons at a local private school. After his wife received a phone call from the school telling her that Kerem was having trouble breathing, Guvelioglu rushed to the school and found out Kerem had already been taken to the hospital. Kerem nearly drowned in a lifeguarded pool with several supervisors — several water safety failures led to the incident.

Kerem was put in a medically-induced hypothermic coma and awoke several days later. Today, he’s is a typical 8-year-old preparing to enter the third grade this fall.

Open water poses its own threats with currents, threatening weather conditions and limited visibility in deep or muddy water, DeSanders notes.

“Kids should always wear a life vest in open water,” she advises. “Get them a cool jacket so they’re excited to wear it, always read lake and ocean regulations, and swim to those conditions.”

Protecting kids around water means creating layers of safety to lower the risk of drowning but never becoming fully dependent on a single measure. Constantly supervise kids, enroll them in swim lessons, wear life jackets in open water, create barriers around all water and learn CPR.

“Because the risk [of drowning] never completely goes away,” Guvelioglu admits. “Drowning can happen anywhere at anytime.”