Two summers ago, our middle son, Atticus, had a near-drowning experience at a pool party. Miraculously, Atticus made a full recovery after spending several weeks in a PICU in Baton Rouge and completing physical therapy.
Today, you would never know such an event ever took place in his very short life because he’s a very normal, six-year-old kid who just joined a swim team. But, I do want to give my account of what happened that day to help generate more understanding of drowning and how parents can be proactive in preventing it.
My wife, three kids, and I headed out to the party on a Sunday afternoon in August following church for a typical mid-afternoon kids’ pool party. Both of our boys, Carson (then 5) and Atticus (then 4), had gone through swim lessons that summer in June. So by August, both had become strong, confident swimmers. Since my wife and I are both teachers and therefore off during the summer, we’d go multiple times in a week to our neighborhood pool with the kids, where they proved time and again that they could swim and were confident in their abilities.
Once we were at the party, the boys stayed mostly in the pool playing with other kids, only coming out for snacks, juice, and pizza. Our third kiddo, Evangeline, hadn’t had her first birthday yet, so she slept through most of the party inside in a pack ‘n play. I’d say there were about twelve kids in the pool playing that afternoon, so not so many where we couldn’t see what our kids were doing at all times. The pool was an in-ground one, and multiple parents and adults were no more than ten feet away for the entire party. All of the food and cake were served outside, so my wife and I were outside the entire time, only going inside for bathroom breaks. I think it’s important to set this scene because I bet many of you have been in this exact same situation, and I want to stress how normal everything seemed at the time.
My wife left the party after about an hour because she had to meet someone for a previously-scheduled meeting. Being a dad of three, I take pride in being able to parent all of my kids by myself, so I was fully confident I would be able to get everyone home after the party. Around 3:30 that afternoon, Carson and Atticus had just finished one of their snack plates and went back into the pool. The last thing I remember saying to Atticus was, “Hey, are you done with this plate?” He answered that he was, so I tossed the plate and continued talking with some other adults out by the pool.
No more than five minutes later, one of the kids in the pool alerted us that something happened to Atticus. When I saw him, he was floating face-up just below the surface of the water near the shallow end of the pool. Thankfully, my body and instinct took over at that point and didn’t let what was going on sink in. I ran over and pulled my lifeless son’s body from the pool and placed him about eight feet away in the grass. I had CPR training in college, but I hadn’t had the training in nine years. But, the basics of the procedure came back without having to think or dig too deep for it. Also, I had another parent at the party who knew CPR as well and helped coach me back through it.
I immediately cleared Atticus’s throat using my fingers and began the chest compressions. I completed the first cycle of compressions and breathing air into his mouth. No reaction. I started the second cycle, and he started coming back right in the middle of that set. I also learned at that time that bringing a victim back is nothing like in the movies. He didn’t just cough up a little water and wake right up. When he started reviving, red juice and snot came from his nose and mouth. He also wasn’t fully waking up either, exactly. So, the CPR had to continue. While I focused on Atticus, the other parents called 9-1-1 and got EMS to come within minutes.
Even with them there, Atticus still wasn’t fully awake. He became conscious, but it was like he was trapped in a hazy dream, and he wasn’t opening his eyes. As EMS loaded him in the ambulance, I had to also make sure my other two kids would be okay. Thankfully when I started CPR, the host had moved all of the kids inside to go play something else to distract them. I later found out my oldest son was very unaware of what was happening at the time, for which I’m thankful. As I rushed out the door, I gave the adults some family contact information, and then Atticus and I were off to the hospital. My mom was contacted and was able to come get my kids from the party within the hour.
My job on the ride to the hospital was to help comfort Atticus and ask him questions to keep him awake. If he fell back asleep, his blood pressure would drop, and that wasn’t good. We made it to the ER, and Atticus immediately began receiving treatment, which would last about a month from that point. The ER nurses allowed me to walk into the next room (where I could still see him) so I could take a minute to process everything. My body immediately lost the adrenaline, and I cried.
It was at this point that my wife caught up to us. Out of fear of being rude in her meeting, she had turned her phone to silent and never heard our many phone calls or texts until we were at the hospital, where we would stay for the next few weeks. Atticus made a full recovery thanks to the skilled and capable doctors and nursing staff of the Pediatric ICU center, but it was a preventable incident that we wish we never had to live through and hope no one else does, either.
So if I could impart anything on you from reading this today, it’s to please seek CPR training and stay current with it. Many hospitals, fire stations, etc. will offer the training for free multiple times a year. All you have to do is pick up the phone and ask. The American Heart Association provides thorough information about classes and certification.
Atticus and I are both proud to say that as of today, I’m a card-carrying CPR responder.
Ryan Southall is husband to Megan Southall and dad to three (and soon to be four!) great children: Carson (7), Atticus (6), and Evangeline (2). He received his Bachelor’s Degree in History at Louisiana Tech University and his Master’s Degree in History at Louisiana State University. Ryan and his family live in Zachary, where he has taught Social Studies at Zachary High for the past eight years. He’s also served in the US Navy Reserves for the past four years.