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What I Wish I knew Before My 3-Year-Old Son Drowned

Nicole 4I have 16 photos of my 3-year-old son on what would be his final day of life. In 14 of them, he is wearing a life jacket or puddle jumper, time-stamped photos of my boy, grinning proudly as we unknowingly marched toward the end.

Our precious Levi, drowned in June 2018, while we were on a beach vacation with friends. One moment, he was sitting on the couch, watching TV while I cleaned up after dinner. In the next, I pulled his lifeless body from the bottom of the pool.

Levi had somehow slipped out of the living room filled with children and adults, including myself, my husband, and five other physician friends. We weren’t drinking, weren’t on our phones, and the pool was not even in our line of vision.

I was the one who glanced, unsuspectingly, over the balcony and found our Levi, my guttural screams bringing a rush of people outside.

The confusion of “But, we weren’t even swimming!?” hung in the air, as we grappled to make sense of the senseless.

We begged to trade places with this boy who had so much life left to live and who we had somehow failed to protect. But, despite immediate attention, including being fully intubated before the ambulance even arrived, we lost Levi just hours later.

How did our son drown? How were years of intentional parenting canceled out within seconds?

Levi’s death rests on my husband and me. We failed to keep him safe, and there is no denying that fact. But, I have since learned that water safety goes far beyond the assumed foolproof advice of “watch your kids while swimming.”

As a society, we brush aside the threat of drowning. “Tsk, tsk,” we say from the safety of our iPhones as we casually scroll (often inaccurate, sensationalized) news reports on drowning. We find the loophole rather than facing the fear that this could be us. This stigma around drowning is the greatest threat to prevention efforts.

NIcole 2I never imagined one of my children would drown. Water knocked me off my high horse.

I’m not just a mom with a broken heart: the statistics back me up. Drowning is the #1 cause of death for kids 1-4, a toddler can drown in less than one minute, and at least 69% happen when kids aren’t even swimming. It remains the #2 cause of death for 5-14 year-olds. And, then it spikes AGAIN for teens, who are drowning in natural water.

Since losing Levi, I have turned to advocacy, desperate to educate parents on what I wish I had known about water safety. I have even had the honor of partnering with the American Academy of Pediatricians on a drowning prevention toolkit.

Despite the staggering numbers, drowning is mostly viewed as an afterthought by our culture. Parents only know what they know. But, we owe it to our children to learn more and to do better.

So, what do I wish I had known about drowning before June 2018?

  • Drowning happens to real children who are loved and adored. Even the AAP cites: “Drowning is silent and can happen in
    one minute.” There is no splashing or yelling. There is no time.
  • Toddlers are drowning when it is NOT a swim time. At least 69% of toddler drowning deaths occur during unanticipated access
    to water.
  • Layers of protection are vital: 4 sided fencing, pool alarms, door alarms, designated supervision. Parents should know
    CPR. Yet, Levi had 3 layers in place when he somehow slipped away; the one layer that I believed would have saved him is the
    ability to self-rescue. He did not know how to swim.
  • Nicole 3All swim lessons are not created equally. Lessons need to prioritize teaching a respect for water along with the ability
    to self-rescue / to float. If your child has been in lessons for months and has not made progress, you need to look into a different program. Period.
    We do not stand in a parking lot and tell our children, “Come on in! It’s so much fun!” Yet, this is exactly what we do
    with water. Before you begin a swim program, observe a lesson and talk to current parents. Choose a program that prioritizes safety over fun. The fun and appreciation for water need to come along with the ability to survive in it.
  • Avoid using puddle jumpers and other flotation devices in swimming pools. They provide a false sense of security and lead to muscle memory (in the vertical “drowning position”).
  • I cannot emphasize enough: your toddlers and children need to learn to swim. In 2019, the AAP revised their recommendation
    on swim lessons, citing that evidence proves swim lessons beginning at age 1 may be beneficial to prevent drowning.
  • Natural water (lakes, rivers, the ocean) is a different beast than pools; it is deep, dark, and filled with currents.
    Everyone should wear a life jacket any time they are in natural water. Teens (especially teenage boys) are drowning at extremely high rates in lakes and oceans.

I will actually be in Reno, March 11 from 5-7pm at Renown Regional Medical Center’s Mack Auditorium, sharing Levi’s story and answering questions about water safety. I hope you will join us and will learn exactly what to do to keep your children safe around water. You can RSVP for this free event here.

Thank for your open mind and heart to believe me on this very important topic.

nicole hughes-01


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