Help stop pediatric drownings


The boy is three years old and quite curious about the world. He watches his father leave the house and wants to go find him. He looks to his mother but she is napping beside him on the couch, and he would rather not wake her, so he grabs his stuffed dog, Dory, and walks to the door. The door is unlocked, and he heads out of the apartment, wandering down the hallway in search of his father when the blue pool water catches his eye. The gate is open, swinging back and forth in the wind. He wanders over to the deep blue water.

When the child’s heart stops, there is a deafening silence within body contrasting with the cries and screams, loud as thunder, from those who find him floating in the pool. He is rushed to the emergency room. Like bees, the medical teams run in and out, shouting orders and pounding on his chest. The family waits and watches in shock, the faces of the medical team a blur, the voices that speak indistinctly and scrambled. The pain is palpable to those living, a physical thing, unbearable and unforgiving.

I write this so you may hear and see, and help others listen. I hope for one outcome: To prevent deaths that are preventable. To reduce the mortality, I witness in the pediatric intensive care unit and emergency room when summer comes along. Because no matter the facts, no matter the attention to detail, I will still find myself witnessing and actively involved in the resuscitation efforts of a child who comes in after drowning. I will see a preventable process end a child’s life, and I will see parents broken and shattered from the loss.

As a medical professional working in the intensive care unit when I hear of young children at a pool, I cannot help but worry. Drowning, after birth defects, is the leading cause of death in children under four years of age. It is also the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle collisions in those ages one through 14.

It happens in what must feel like a millisecond to parents. A father leaves for work in the morning and does not lock the apartment door behind him. His three-year-old wanders out of the apartment while his mother and siblings are asleep. He finds himself at the pool, and though there are gates, those are unlocked too. He is found facedown in the pool hours later. A family visits a friend’s home with a pool. The mother is helping take out the trash with their two-year-old tagging along. The mother turns away from the child and dumps the trash, and when she turns back, the child is no longer in sight. She searches the house first, then goes around the backyard and finds her child in the pool. A celebratory party is being held with the adults inside, and all kids poolside with the grandmother watching the kids. When one child who cannot swim falls in, the grandmother is slow to notice, then slower to react.

These stories are a few of the many true horrors I have witnessed, all different beginnings but similar endings. It appears like a mockery on life, a testament of how easily something beautiful ends. It is preventable, yet it is so common. And, sadly, no matter this brief reminder on the deadliness of the pool, as summer approaches I will see more children admitted and die in the critical care unit for drowning.

The fact is most drowning happens in home swimming pools of which most of these children were not expected to be at or in the pool. Another fact: fences with gates that remain locked are the most effective and proven way to prevent drowning of young children. Pool alarms are also effective but only as an addition, never as a sole preventive method. Adequate adult supervision is also very important.

Of course, there are those older children that drown too. Swimming lessons beginning from age four are recommended by the American Association of Pediatrics — as well, a heightened sense of awareness, and educating the older child is a point that cannot be overstated. Importantly, if your child is missing and there is a pool nearby, check the water first. Most people search the home first before searching the grounds, which wastes precious minutes.

We must be attentive to our surroundings, and we must ask those hard questions to the apartment complex with the broken pool gate or educate the friends with easy access to their pools. Even if we do not have children. Awareness does not end with one preventing it from happening to their loved ones. Spread the word and actively prevent it from happening to other children too.

Chinyere Onyearugbulem is a pediatric critical care physician.

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