He may only have been 5, but his adoring family already knew Torrey Ethan Davis was destined to be an athlete. The outgoing kindergartener loved sports, SpongeBob SquarePants, chicken, fries and cornbread. He had just started to read, and filled the homes of his family with his energy and laughter.
“And he was spoiled,” recalls his grandmother, Sheila Johnson, laughing softly. “Oh my goodness, was he spoiled.”
Last Mother’s Day, at around 8 p.m., Johnson was home with her son (Torrey’s father) and mother when the phone rang. The caller told Torrey’s father to go to the hospital immediately. Something had happened to his son.
“I was frantic,” Johnson says. “My mind was going crazy. I had no idea what was going on. An hour later I got the call. Torrey had drowned. That’s all I know. I wasn’t there.”
A year later, the family is still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy. Torrey had allegedly been left unattended for mere minutes in the swimming pool of the Riverview apartment complex in which he lived with his mother when he had drowned.
Two minutes is all it takes for a child to lose consciousness; four to six minutes, the length of time in which permanent brain damage can occur from being submerged in water. In 2012, 440 Florida residents drowned, 13 percent of whom were children between ages 1 and 4, according to the Florida Department of Health. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in that age group. In fact, enough children drown each year in Florida to fill three to four preschool classrooms.
For Bevin Maynard, supervisor of the Child Advocacy Center at St Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, those numbers are especially tragic because drowning is preventable. Unfortunately, Florida’s biggest lure can also be its biggest danger—sparkling blue water beckoning from ponds, lakes and pools (Florida ranks third in the nation for numbers of pools), not to mention off the edge of docks and boats.
“The American dream in Florida is to have a home pool,” Maynard says. “Yes, it’s fun and wonderful, but you have to take responsibility for the safety of the children living in or visiting your home.”
In 2000, the Florida legislature enacted the Residential Pool Safety Act that mandated that new pools need to have one of four safety features installed: a safety pool cover; a barrier that is at least four feet high; door and window alarms for exits that lead to the pool area; or self-closing, self-latching devices on doors or windows leading to the pool no less than 54 inches above the floor.
The legislation was a wonderful step, says Maynard, but it has not brought down the drowning numbers, partly because the law does not apply to pools built before 2000—and more than 90 percent of existing Florida pools were built before 2000.
The other problem is enforcement. “You can choose between one of the four safety measures,” Maynard explains. “As soon as the inspector leaves, many homeowners remove them. They might think that door alarms are annoying or that a pool fence is an inconvenience. They say things like ‘I don’t have toddlers,’ ‘My child is not an explorer,’ or ‘My doors are always locked.’, But that’s not good enough. Toddlers are unpredictable and curious.”
“Unlike what most people think, younger children don’t usually drown at busy parties or crowded beaches,” explains Maynard.
Drowning often occurs where parents think they are the safest: at home. According to the Florida Department of Health, 62 percent of children ages 1 to 5 drowned in the home—of those, 56 percent in a swimming pool, and 6 percent in a bathtub. It’s ironic, says Maynard, that when it comes to checking out daycare or preschool for their toddlers, parents research options exhaustively to make sure safety precautions are in place, but when it comes to their homes, people fall under the illusion that home is a safe place and either don’t put barriers in place or ignore them.
For each child who dies by drowning, three times as many make it to the emergency room alive, Maynard says. Of these, the lucky ones have their lungs cleared and are sent home. About half of those that come in, however, are hospitalized with brain damage, and the long-term effects for these kids are heartbreaking.
She is still haunted by a young boy who was brought in to the Emergency Center after being found in a pool. Before the incident he was a healthy and very active child. Now he no longer has the ability to sit up by himself.
“It’s devastating,” Maynard says. “The drowning part was just the beginning of a long road of major medical issues.”
Such damage occurs because the child was found too late. A missing child is often sought under beds, inside closets, in the garage—every place but the most dangerous one.
“If you can’t find your child and you have a pool or your neighbor has a pool—check the pool first,” says Maynard.
That’s what happened in 2011 to Aoife Kennedy, a toddler whose family was renting a home that had no pool fence. When she was 13 months old, Aoife was found floating face down in her family’s pool, and her father, Gary Kennedy, told ABC Action News that she fell in and under the water without a sound.
Luckily, Aoife was found quickly and her father and a neighbor began CPR immediately. As a result, although she spent five weeks in St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric ICU—three of those weeks in a coma—she is healthy today.
Swiftly pulling the child out and administering CPR immediately can make all the difference in the world. “If you can find them within three to five minutes, the chances of survival skyrocket,” says Maynard.
Maynard and St Joseph’s Children’s Hospital are part of a network of community organizations working to decrease the possibility of drowning. Interventions include swim lesson vouchers for low-income families, mobile swim lessons, and CPR certification.
“Barriers are layers of protection, but nothing beats active supervision,” says Maynard. “It can happen to anyone—money, education—all of these make no difference.”
In the year since little Torrey’s death, Johnson says the pain has receded very little. She struggles with her anger, grief and regrets, such as not taking Torrey to swimming lessons. But she has found an outlet campaigning actively for water safety.
“I just felt so strongly that I needed to do something,” says Johnson. “I was so angry about this. For me, it helps trying to participate, trying to do something to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Johnson has worked with the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and with the Safety Rocks Foundation to push for measures such as more access to swimming lessons and lifeguards at apartment pool complexes. One day she hopes to start a foundation to help prevent children from drowning.
“I just have to take things day by day, but my progress has been at a snail’s pace,” she says. “It hasn’t been a whole lot easier. This is something we’re going to have to live with now.”
The 411 on Pool Safety
- Never leave children alone in or near the pool or spa, even for a moment.
- Whenever infants or toddlers are in or around water, an adult – preferably one who knows how to swim and perform CPR – should be within arm’s length, providing “touch supervision.”
- Install a fence at least 4 feet high around all four sides of the pool. The fence should not have openings or protrusions that a young child could use to get over, under, or through.
- Make sure pool gates open out from the pool, and self-close and self-latch at a height children can’t reach. Consider alarms on the gate to alert you when someone opens the gate. Consider surface wave or underwater alarms as an added layer of protection.
- If the house serves as the fourth side of a fence surrounding a pool, install an alarm on the exit door to the yard and the pool. For additional protection, install window guards on windows facing the pool. Drowning victims have also used pet doors to gain access to pools. Keep all of your barriers and alarms in good repair with fresh batteries.
- Keep rescue equipment (a shepherd’s hook – a long pole with a hook on the end — and life preserver) and a portable telephone near the pool. Choose a shepherd’s hook and other rescue equipment made of fiberglass or other materials that do not conduct electricity.
- Avoid inflatable swimming aids such as “floaties.” They are not a substitute for approved life vests and can give children and parents a false sense of security.
- Children ages 1 to 4 may be at a lower risk of drowning if they have had some formal swimming instruction. However, there is no evidence that swimming lessons or water survival skills courses can prevent drowning in babies younger than 1 year of age.
- The decision to enroll a 1- to 4-year-old child in swimming lessons should be made by the parent and based on the child’s developmental readiness, but swim programs should never be seen as “drown proofing” a child of any age.
- Avoid entrapment: Suction from pool and spa drains can trap a swimmer underwater. Do not use a pool or spa if there are broken or missing drain covers. Ask your pool operator if your pool or spa’s drains are compliant with the Pool and Spa Safety Act. If you have a swimming pool or spa, ask your pool service representative to update your drains and other suction fitting with anti-entrapment drain covers and other devices or systems. See PoolSafely.gov for more information on the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.
- Large, inflatable, above-ground pools have become increasingly popular for backyard use. Children may fall in if they lean against the soft side of an inflatable pool. Although such pools are often exempt from local pool fencing requirements, it is essential that they be surrounded by an appropriate fence just as a permanent pool would be so that children cannot gain unsupervised access.
- If a child is missing, look for him or her in the pool or spa first.
- Share safety instructions with family, friends and neighbors.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics.
For more information on water safety or to sign up for an Infant and Child CPR class, visit StJosephsChildrens.org or call (813) 615-0589.