Levi’s Legacy :: Preventing Toddler Drownings

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When my daughter was 8 months old, I willingly handed her to the murderer who took her big brother’s life.

And, then I watched as she fought off this killer and learned to live.

My three year old son, Levi, drowned in June 2018, while we were on a beach vacation with friends. One moment, he was sitting on the couch, watching TV. In the next, I pulled him from the bottom of the pool.

Levi before drowning

While we cleaned up from dinner, Levi somehow slipped out of the room filled with children and adults. I wasn’t drinking or on my phone. The pool was not even in our line of vision.

I was the one who found our Levi, my guttural screams bringing our friends rushing outside. My husband, an anesthesiologist, was the first to perform CPR on his only son. Our daughters watched in horror from the balcony.

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 whom we had somehow failed to protect. But, despite immediate attention from the 6 physicians on our trip, we lost Levi just hours later.

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

The painful truth is that Levi’s death rests on my husband and me. But I have since learned that water safety goes far beyond the assumed foolproof advice of “watch your kids while swimming.”

I thought I was doing everything to keep Levi safe. I have 16 photos of what would be his final day of life, and 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.

Levi on the beach before drowning

Of course, I desperately wish I had not momentarily turned to clean up dinner and had seen Levi slip out the door that night. But I have learned that the most impactful mistake I made that led to my son’s death was that I encouraged Levi to believe that water was safe and fun.

We don’t stand in a busy parking lot and eagerly proclaim to our impressionable toddlers: “Come on in!” We don’t encourage our kids to “become comfortable” around guns. Yet, this is exactly what we do with water, a substance that takes more children’s lives than parking lots and guns combined.

I’m not just a mom with a broken heart: the statistics back me up. Drowning is the #1 cause of death for children ages 1-4, a toddler can drown in 30 seconds, and at least 69% of drownings occur when kids aren’t even swimming. Drowning is the #2 cause of death for 5-14 year olds. And it spikes for teens, who are drowning in natural water.

Yet, as a society, we smugly view drowning as a deserved punishment for neglectful parents. “Tsk, tsk,” we say from the safety of our phones as we casually scroll (often sensationalized) news reports on drowning. We ignore the statistics on drowning, choosing to find the loophole instead.

But, here is the raw truth: the implications of neglect are irrelevant, because drowning isn’t happening to the parents. It is happening to the child. It’s the 3 year old who will never get another bedtime kiss, the 8 year old who will never open another Christmas stocking, and the teenager who will never graduate high school. Behind the statistics are real children, with whole lives spread before them.

Until those lives are taken.

We are failing our children. Every year that we continue to stick puddle jumpers on our toddlers and cross our fingers that maybe THIS is the year the statistics magically change, we are telling thousands of children: We don’t care enough about you to figure out how to keep you alive.

The same water safety tips are tossed out each year: Watch your kids while swimming! Buy a puddle jumper! Learn CPR!

Well, my son was not swimming; he was wearing khaki shorts and sitting on a couch a moment before he drowned. Levi always wore a puddle jumper while swimming. My son had 6 physicians by his side within seconds of being pulled from the water. AND NONE OF THESE SAVED HIM.

So, how do we stop this epidemic?

We start by looking beyond what we are currently doing and ask ourselves: “WHAT ELSE?”

We start by treating water as if it is a lethal environment, because it is. I am not advocating to avoid water; my older girls love swimming. But, our culture has the fun aspect of water figured out, and we must also add in how to respect it.

We start by looking at what worked in the past to prevent childhood deaths.  When the statistics from car crashes continued to rise, our society didn’t keep the same approach year after year and hope for the best. No, instead, parents and the medical community looked beyond and pushed for radical change with the implementation of car seats.

Skeptics questioned this seemingly risky idea of strapping children into boxes in the car. But, the urgent need for change prevailed, and now car seats save thousands of children from preventable injury and death every year.

And here we are- a new generation of parents facing another preventable childhood death. Will we continue to turn our heads until it’s our turn to sit on the front row at the funeral for a life taken too soon? Or will we think beyond what we are currently doing and push for radical change?

I asked myself: what could have saved Levi and the hundreds of toddlers who drown every year?

After connecting with many of these parents, a clear pattern emerged: toddlers who drowned relied on a puddle jumper, they often drowned when they were not supposed to be in water, and they did not know how to survive if they reached water alone.

 Just like our son.

The missing layer of protection for Levi and all of these innocent children is the one that considers the child and not outside factors. Water is everywhere, and we must teach our children how to SURVIVE in it.

So, on the exact day that marked 20 months since we last saw our son alive, our 8 month old daughter Willow, Levi’s little sister that he will never meet on this Earth, took her first survival swim lesson.

I handed my baby to the water, and with my heart pounding at every lesson, I watched as she learned to roll her tiny body, find the surface, and get air.
ISR lessons

My daughter was not trained to float; she LEARNED to problem-solve and to survive in water. It was the most empowering experience I have had in 11 years of parenting. Go get ‘em, Willow.

She knows where the air is and understands that if she gets to the surface Mommy will scoop her up. When I do, she claps, utterly delighted with herself. These lessons are setting a foundation for a lifetime respect of water.

Of course Willow cried at times during lessons, just as she does when I strap her into her car seat. But, obviously I have never once taken her out of her car seat and held her while I drove simply because she was crying. We must move past the fear of “what if they cry?”  We must prioritize keeping them alive.

When car seats were first introduced, skepticism abounded. Today, doubts around survival swim lessons bring up the same questions that were asked a generation ago:

  • Will children be traumatized from crying in the car seat/learning to float?

  • Are (car seats/survival swim lessons) effective?
  • How will every parent afford a car seat/survival swim lessons?

And, yet the cause behind car seats persisted, rallied by, now I know for sure, parents who lost innocent children in car crashes and were hell bent to make sure they saved other babies. Car seats have become an important, non-negotiable part of every child’s life. I hope that by the time our babies are parents, we can say the same about survival swim lessons.

Please know- I am not an ISR instructor. I gain nothing from advocating. I am just a mother who lost a perfectly healthy child in seconds to a preventable killer. I’m a mother trying desperately to figure out where I went wrong and fix it.

I am not even saying survival swim lessons are the only answer. Nothing in this world is so universal that it is for everyone.  And, I am well aware of the unfortunate inaccessibility of these lessons for many.

What I am saying (well, the statistics speak more loudly than I am) is: What our culture is currently doing to decrease the number of toddler drownings is not working. And in almost every single case, toddlers who drowned did not know how to survive in water. This correlation begs to be taken seriously. As a society, as parents, as human beings, we owe it to ALL children to stop this epidemic. We have to do better.

As parents, we only know what we know. We see puddle jumpers pop up on the shelves at Target, with labels proclaiming “LEARN TO SWIM DEVICE” (a false claim made without a single bit of research to support it). Yet, since we see other children wearing them, we assume they are the safe route for water safety. So, we put them on our children and think when “they are ready,” we will sign them up for swim lessons.

I know, because this is exactly what I did with Levi.

I have a chance, bittersweet as it is, with my baby daughter to do things differently, which is why I am equipping her with a lifetime foundation of being able to survive in water. The initial goal is not to learn to “swim” but to get to the surface, breathe, and float until rescued.

Unfortunately, all swim lessons are not created equal. I know far too many broken hearted parents who lost a toddler to drowning after completing rounds of the “Jump to Mommy!” group swim lessons that only teach that water is fun. Choose lessons that focus on survival, have individualized instruction, and where your child progresses in weeks- not months and certainly not years.

Watching Willow learn to get to the surface and live is a gut punch. How did I not know that Levi was capable of this skill? In the best moments of this lifetime of grief, I know my family will survive this tragedy, because we are choosing to live meaningful lives for our son’s legacy. But, in the worst moments, when I feel certain this is what the depths of Hell feel like, I think about Levi’s final seconds in the water. My broken mommy heart cannot help but wonder: Was he scared?

Please feel my mama-heart reaching out to yours. Look at the statistics around drowning. Trust me, you would rather your child be face up in the water, rather than face down. You would rather hear crying than the silence I heard the night tragedy stole my son. Please take action: stop using flotation devices in the pool and enroll your child in survival swim lessons.

About the Author:

Nicole Hughes is a Memphis native who now lives in East TN. She is a teacher and mother of 4 children. Her son, Levi, drowned in 2018 when he was 3 years old. Nicole hopes to spread awareness and educate parents on the real truth about drowning.
* Learn more about water safety: https://www.levislegacy.com
* Read more about Levi, Nicole’s grief journey, and water safety on Instagram: nicolehughes8  and Facebook: WaterGuardiansLevisLegacy

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