Two parents tell the story of their family's worst day—and the happy ending that came as a result of being prepared.
Jeff: We do a lot of crazy traveling with our family. My wife and I are proud of the fact that we don't let fear stop us from bringing our kids along on any adventure that pops into our minds. We do hard things, that is just what it means to be part of our family. And yes, sometimes when someone says that we are crazy, I am guilty of responding with the phrase "What's the worst that can happen?"
Kim: It’s the same as all the other stories you hear: “It all happened so fast.” “We were all right there when it happened!” We thought we had taken the right precautions... but he drowned anyway.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Kim: My parents were coming home from California that night. They had been gone for over a year and my family had been living in their empty house for the last three weeks. My family. The one with 6 little kids. It needed to be cleaned badly! So we were playing hard, getting the kids wore out so we could get quality naps.
Lunchtime came around and that’s when our "proper precautions" started to wear thin. Adults and kids started going in and out of the house: “Can you get the mustard? We need more cups! I need to go potty!” Life jackets and Swimmies came off so as not to drip too much water through the house, and there was such a hunger need that no one was put in charge of getting them back on again.
I had no idea that he wasn’t in his life jacket. When I saw the top of his little head in the water I remember thinking, “I’m so glad we got that new little jacket! He is swimming so well with it on!” It was so fast. We were all right there. 15 feet away.
The Worst 5 Minutes of My Life
Jeff: Our three-year-old son was the first one to notice that there was a problem. His two-year-old little brother had at some point moved off the step and went under the water.
We don't know exactly what happened at this point. The three-year-old pulled his brother to the side of the pool, where their older sister lifted him out of the water. Nobody remembers what was said, but at that instant all three adults turned and saw my daughter holding this small lifeless blue body limp across her arms.
Kim: I remember thinking “That’s not what it looks like. It can’t possibly be…” I started yelling at my husband to get him out. He ran over and the five-year-old handed him over to Dad. I remember yelling the most intense prayer of my life, “Oh God, NO! Not my Ammie! Please, please not my Ammie!” over and over again. His body was limp and blue. His eyes were glazed over. No one ever told me about how his eyes would look. His body looked so small, like some horrid rubber doll hanging limp in his father’s arms.
When I ran up to get him, he smelled like vomit. Of course Dad handed him to me. I had had the most training. I knew we had to start CPR immediately. But this was so different than training. He was so small. How do I do compressions on a chest this small? His entire chest fit in my two hands.
Jeff: My first instinct was to just get everyone away. This was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to our family and I didn't want anyone there to see it. I didn't want my wife to have to see him. She was due to have a baby at any minute, and couldn't handle seeing her dead son hanging there in my arms.
You should know that this is actually taking more time for you to read than it took for me to live this experience. It all happened within probably 3-5 seconds of time. Kim immediately began performing CPR, massaging his heart with her thumbs and between rescue breaths repeating "... not my Ammie, not my Ammie ..." At the same time she was yelling at me to call 911, which I was fumbling to do with my shaking fingers.
Kim: Immediately there was water, so much water. Water came out his nose and his mouth. He was completely full of water. I kept going, compressions, rescue breath, compressions. The water stopped. Compressions, rescue breath, compressions!
I started to hear Ammie’s little voice. Little sighs that sounded just like him, but weren’t really him. I remember the CPR instructor talking about that. Patients can start making vocal sounds while you are performing CPR, but it’s just the air going through their cords. I hadn’t thought about how the sounds he would make would be made in his voice. It sounded just like him. I remember thinking it was going to be the last time I would hear his little voice.
Jeff: This is the point where the story turns for the better.
It took about five minutes from the time my wife started CPR until my son began to get the first bit of color back into his lips. This was how she knew that his heart had started back up again. I have no idea how this works so to me I just chalk it up to being a miracle. She rubbed his chest and that limp body, which I perceived as dead, became my son again.
Kim: When I picked him up and ran inside I started CPR again, but I started to notice his pink color spreading. His heart had started again. I did a couple more rescue breaths and his chest started to rise and fall on its own. He was breathing! The 911 operator reminded me to roll him on his side so that if he started to vomit he wouldn’t aspirate it.
Jeff: According to my phone it took eight minutes from when I first dialed 911 until the fire chief showed up at our house. After assessing the situation he began working to get the rest of the water out of my son's lungs. A few minutes later the ambulance arrived and my 11-year-old directed the EMTs to our location. It seems like a blink of the eye and they were gone, with my wife yelling for me to grab her some clothes and meet her at the hospital. They were gone.
Kim: By the time we got to the hospital, the doctors said his lungs sounded clear. Chest X-rays showed that his lungs looked good. He responded to pain, and his reflexes were good, we just couldn’t rouse him. He was so exhausted.
They said he needed to be kept under observation for the night to be sure that he didn’t have any complications, but the hospital didn’t have a pediatric intensive care unit. So they decided to fly him to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) where he would receive the best care. I couldn’t believe how fast they had the helicopter team there to take him away.
I wanted to go with them. But they were concerned that the seat belts wouldn’t fit around my 39-week-pregnant belly. And so we got him prepped in the seat belt on the gurney, and they took him. They said it would be a 12-minute flight to CHOP. It took us almost two hours to drive.
It was the hardest moment for me to watch him roll down the hallway heading to the helicopter. I was completely sick that I couldn’t be with him.
Jeff: When we finally made it to the hospital in Philadelphia he was asleep in his room. He was asleep, not unconscious, just asleep. He had apparently woken up in the helicopter and spent much of the ride yelling for "daddy". Now he was just tired. It was a rough day for all of us, and his little body needed to sleep.
Kim: His vitals were normal, his heart was normal, he was reacting as he should. He was our little boy, alive and well. Truly, he was a miracle to us.
The stress of the day did start some minor contractions for me that night, but with some rest they went away. They kept us overnight for observation, but it was clear that by the next morning he was going to be just fine. He was eating, drinking, and playing with the cool new hospital toys—which was a definite benefit of being in a pediatric unit.
Jeff: We don't know for sure how long he was under water, but we are guessing no more than 3 minutes. This means that my wife got his heart started after he had been down for around 9 minutes. If nothing would have been done until the fire chief arrived, and if it took him about the same amount of time as it took my wife, then my son would have been down for approximately 3+8+5=16 minutes.
I don't know what the consequence would have been of those few extra minutes, but to me, my wife saved his life. Because of her, he is the same child that he was at the start of the summer. I have always loved my wife, and I have always known that she is an incredible woman, but I can't even express the way I feel for her after this incident. She is amazing.
Kim: Our life, it seemed was going to be able to return to normal, though it would never be the same. I will forever look at him a little differently. I will appreciate his smile and laughter, even his high pitched screams, so much more.
What you can learn from our story
Kim: So, why is this story important? It started out the same as all the other stories you hear, but our miracle ending was not the result of luck or of an amazingly fast ambulance team, but of training.
Jeff: I had taken CPR multiple times through the years but it didn't help because I panicked. I tell people that this was the most worthless I have ever felt as a parent. My child needed me more than ever before and I couldn't do anything. Fortunately, I did the most important thing correctly, which was to hand my son over to my wife.
In preparation for our crazy life together, my wife had gotten her undergraduate degree in Outdoor Recreation, and part of her training involved receiving her Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification. She has kept this up over the years, presumably because the recertification is so much cheaper than the initial training, but really because it gives her the confidence she needs to save us a ton of emergency room visits.
When we lived in Texas, my wife was on the Search and Rescue team, where she received additional training on how to stay calm during intense situations. My wife is naturally just an amazing woman, but she also had the training necessary to manage this situation.
We believe that everyone should try new experiences. Get yourself out of your comfort zone. That said, when the worst happens, the more training you have the better. The WFR course is designed to help you "Be Prepared for the Unexpected". The Unexpected can happen whether you are on a week-long kayak trip, or just visiting your in-laws. You will feel more confident to try new things, and be better prepared, if you take the time to receive training.
Kim: Be trained. Get as much training as possible. Get an advanced CPR certification. The little bit of extra time and money may be the difference of being able to act, and freezing under pressure. I decided because of this experience that I have to continue my first responder training. There is still so much that I should learn!
I am so grateful for the courses and instructors that I have had thus far that gave me the ability to not panic, freeze, or give up too soon, but to do what was needed to save my son’s life.
Kim: As we walked in the front door of our house, Ammie ran in, picked up his life jacket and asked to go in the pool. "Yes!" we said. We went straight into the pool, got the other kids, and made new, happy memories of the family playing together in the water. We will be more diligent about our children in their life preservers, but fear will not drive us to abandon activities that provide bonding and a lifetime of fun.
Jeff: Here is the important point: Bad Things Will Happen. This may have been the worst thing that has happened to us while traveling with our kids, but it definitely isn't the first time that something bad has happened. I mean, we have survived some massive cuts, burns, cacti, and—oh yeah—having a premature baby while on a camping trip. And all of these past experiences have taught us that you can't completely prevent horrible things from happening, but you can learn from the experiences.
We did not want the lesson to be that our kids should stay away from the water; this would be a negative consequence of the experience and would limit the future fun we could have as a family.
I actually don't know what the big takeaway is going to be for our kids related to this experience, but I do know that it will make our family stronger. I also know that when I hold my kids now I do it a little differently and I appreciate every moment with them a little bit more. Things will never be completely the same, but we aren't going to stop doing amazing things together as a family.
P.S. Here is the best part. Less than a week after my son drowned in the pool he was able to play with his new baby sister. This is what a miracle looks like.
Sarah is a Wyoming native, Wilderness First Responder graduate, and former marketing coordinator for NOLS Wilderness Medicine. When she’s offline she enjoys running, singing and playing guitar, and playing in the mountains