My son, Levi, will never turn 4 years old. He will never have a 4th birthday party, surrounded by friends wearing Paw Patrol party hats. He will not grin with pride and embarrassment as his family and friends sing to this little boy who was adored by so many.
Levi will never celebrate another birthday, because on June 10, 2018, our precious son drowned while we were on vacation in Alabama.
My husband and I always knew we wanted three kids. We had two girls: Lily: she is 10 but, of course thinks she is 17. She was Levi’s greatest treasure, and his real mom. Lily had infinite patience for his toddler antics. Her tiny heart is broken, and she has asked me through tears: How did we not know Levi could drown when he was sitting on the couch?”
Reese. She is 6 and wants to be 6 forever and ever and ever. Reese and Levi were 24 months apart, a package deal. Her Kindergarten heart is unable to process this permanent loss. “Mom, why did we only get him for 3 years and not for a real, whole life?”
Levi. He was our third child, we assumed our final one, and our only son. And, he was a BOY. Levi had boundless energy and never slept; it now makes sense he was trying to fit so many years of living into just three. He loved chocolate chip mini muffins, reading books about scary ocean creatures, and jumping everywhere. We will never stop missing this energetic, snuggly, silly boy.
During my husband’s anesthesiology residency, we became more family than friends with 5 other physician families. For the last decade, we have taken an annual summer beach trip to Fort Morgan, AL with these close friends.
Sunday, June 10, our first full day, was perfect. The kids ate popsicles, swam, rode a kayak in the ocean. In all of my final pictures of Levi, he is wearing a life jacket. Flying a kite with his daddy: life jacket. Playing in the pool with his big sister: puddle jumper. I really thought I was doing everything right when it came to water safety.
On the first night, the dads planned to take the kids crab-hunting, complete with matching, custom bright yellow shirts. When I put Levi’s shirt on him the evening of June 10, he was thrilled to finally be one of the big kids. “Mom! This is not my pajama shirt! This is my crab hunting shirt!” How could we have known that we would lose our cherished son before the crab-hunting trip even started?
While we waited for it to get dark, we hung out in the main room of the house. Dinner was over, and the adults were cleaning up while the kids piled on the couch and watched TV. I split a brownie with Levi, ruffling his hair, and grinning at his delight. This would be my final interaction with my son. My next steps were meaningless. I wasn’t drinking, wasn’t on my phone. How did Levi get out of heavy doors, out of a room filled with adults and kids? It was truly moments, seconds. What lured him outside, away from me, when he never willingly left my side? HOW did I not see him?
I walked out the back door to check the weather. As I looked over the balcony of the second floor and into the pool below; a bright spot of yellow pierced my soul. It was our Levi, on the bottom of the pool.
First: confusion: “But, we weren’t even swimming. How can you drown when you are wearing khaki shorts?”
I banged on the glass doors behind me, screaming. I sprinted down the spiral staircase and jumped into the water to grab my son’s lifeless body. The other half of the brownie was still in my mouth. We would later learn that children under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds because their lungs are so small and they don’t know to hold their breath.
All 6 physicians, including my husband, were by the side of the pool in an instant. While I raged, my clothes soaking wet, begging the universe to please give me back one minute, they fought like hell to save our baby. I watched as my husband performed CPR on his namesake. We both fell to our knees in desperation, begging to trade places with this boy who had so much life left to live and who we had somehow failed to protect.
Levi regained a weak pulse, was airlifted to Mobile, but died hours later. I can never do justice to the pain that is walking out of a hospital room without your child, with the knowledge that you will never see him on this earth, again. We handled it the only way we could, the way we have handled it for the last year: one step, one breath, one second at a time.
Drowning. It’s hard to discuss. It is impossible to allow our minds to venture into this painful of territory, it is something that happens to neglectful parents. So, it’s mostly just ignored.
We think: Kids can drown. What else is there to know?
Plenty, I promise. Do you know a child can fully drown in 30 seconds? Do you know that if your child does not make it to Kindergarten, the statistics point in likelihood of death by drowning? Do you know that for each drowning death, FIVE TIMES as many children are hospitalized, many with permanent brain injuries? Do you know that toddlers are more likely to drown in pools while teenage boys are more likely to drown in open water, like lakes and oceans?
Drowning is a leading killer of children (and adults), yet discussions on drowning are background noise or deemed irrelevant, because people think, “well, I watch my kids when they swim” or “we don’t even have a backyard pool.”
Trust me, I know how people think, because I used to be that person. Well, Levi drowned in a matter of seconds, during a non-swim time, in a pool that was not ours. We have to break the barriers. We have to talk about drowning. Trust me- you do not want to wait until tragedy is your reason to advocate.
Exactly one week after we lost Levi, my husband discovered these drowning statistics:
Drowning is the #1 cause of death in children under age 5
Drowning is the #2 cause of death for ages 5-14
69% of drowning happens when children aren’t even expected to be swimming, yet they slip away- just like our Levi.
The risk of drowning for teens ages 15-19 increased four-fold and is usually in natural water without life jackets
The truth sat there between us, suffocating and leering, piercing our already shattered hearts. How had this information been compiled, yet had not reached us?
I was furious- at the universe, at the unfairness, at this monster that snatched my son when I didn’t even know how to protect him. As painful as it is, Levi’s death rests on us. I am not placing blame, but I wonder if our son would still be alive if we had truly known what we were up against? How were years of intentional parenting canceled out in seconds of cleaning up after dinner?
As a person who believes in a shared human experience, I could not just sit back all summer and watch as more children drowned. I had to help spread these statistics I wish I had known. I had an idea- one that I believe would have saved Levi. I started a non-profit called Levi’s Legacy: Water Guardians. Since supervision is a vital part of drowning prevention, I created a tag that designates a Water Guardian. The laminated card (worn as a necklace or bracelet) serves as a reminder to the Water Guardian to watch the kids, to guard the water, EVEN when they are not swimming. These cards can be personalized with a child’s name and photo or the name of a beach/lake house.
Designated supervision is just one layer of protection. It is important to have as many barriers as possible between your child and the water:
Install a 4-sided fence that goes fully around the entire pool.
Make sure the fence has self-closing and latching gates.
Utilize pool and door alarms.
Enroll your child in survival swim lessons. All swim lessons are not created equal. Progress should happen in weeks and months, not in years, and the goal should be on survival and respect for the water. Look for lessons that teach roll-to-float or how to get to the side of the pool. I firmly believe that survival swim lessons would have saved Levi, and I will carry this regret for the rest of my life. The AAP now recommends swim lessons can be started at age 1; please do not wait until your child is 4 to start lessons.
Remove toys from the pool EVERY TIME.
Always wear life jackets when on open water (lakes, rivers, oceans). Encourage teenagers, especially, to be cautious around open water.
Children can drown in 2 inches of water, and in 30 seconds. Be aware of buckets, toilets, irrigation ditches, ponds, baby pools, and bathtubs.
I wish this was not Levi’s story. I just want 30 seconds back on June 10, 2018. But, I will never get that time back, will never get a second chance to save my son.
I used to be the mom who always found the loophole that would exempt a particular tragedy from being mine, but now I know that tragedy does not play fair. I cannot change the past, despite my desperation. But, I know I can help change the future. We are put on this Earth to help each other, to find the connections with others, to leave this world a bit better for the next generations. So, here I am, a broken mother, yelling from the rooftops that: DROWNING HAPPENS. It happens to real people; it happens in seconds; it happens when you are not expecting it.
Drowning is a leading cause of death across all age groups. But, it is also 100% preventable. Please take this message seriously and help save our children.