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Mom Talk: My Son Drowned

Written by Nicole Hughes

*Trigger Warning: Child loss.* Today’s Mom Talk story is a tough one to read, but it’s also a vital one. We first discovered mother of three Nicole Hughes through headlines this summer when she partnered with Morgan and Bode Miller after the sudden drowning death of their toddler daughter. Nicole’s own heartbreaking story of loss, combined with must-hear advice for parents, follows. We suggest you take it to heart and also share it far and wide. Children’s lives truly depend on it.

My son, Levi, will not be going trick-or-treating this year, even though he always loved Halloween best. Just one short year ago, he ran through our neighborhood, dressed in his furry blue Cookie Monster costume, one hand gripping his Daddy’s hand and one holding his candy bag just as tightly. He grinned in delight with each drop of Skittles and mini Hershey bars into his bag. Halloween was his favorite time of the year, and he would tell me repeatedly and matter-of-factly for months after October 31: “Mom, Halloween is coming SOOON. I’m going trick-or-treat with Daddy.”

But, Levi will not be celebrating Halloween this year, or any other year. I will not buy him a costume or take pictures of him to overshare on social media. Halloween for our family will never be the same, because on June 10, 2018, our precious Levi 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 9, 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 often, through tears, “How did we not know, Mom? How did we not know he could drown when he was sitting on the couch?”

Reese. She is 5, and wants to be 5 forever and ever and ever. Reese and Levi were 24 months apart, a package deal. Always squealing and chasing…and squabbling. They slept together every night, Levi cuddled up right next to Reese. 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, our final one, and our only son. We were thrilled to have this boy as our family’s caboose. And, he was a BOY. He practically entered this world jumping, naked, and with dirt under his fingernails that I could never keep clean. 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. When our husbands graduated in 2012, we went separate ways–ending up in 6 different states. But, we always took an annual summer beach trip to Fort Morgan, Alabama, which is the highlight of our summer. Each year, we have added a few new babies to the mix, with the grand total this year being 17 kids, all 9 and younger. This was our 7th year in this exact same house.

Sunday, June 10, our first full day of vacation, was perfect. The kids ate popsicles, swam, rode a kayak in the ocean. In 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: life jacket. I really thought I was doing everything right.

On the first night, the dads always took 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. 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?

I didn’t even know he was missing—that’s how quickly it happened. I was going to grab Reese’s shirt from the other side of the house. I walked out the same doors, and 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?”

Then: panic.

I banged on the glass doors behind me, screaming. I sprinted down the spiral staircase and jumped into the water to grab Levi. The other half of the brownie was still in my mouth. We would later learn that a child under 30 pounds can drown in 30 seconds.

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. 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 four months: one step, one breath, one second at a time.

Drowning. It’s hard to discuss. It is uncomfortable, it is impossible to allow our minds to venture into this painful of territory, it is something that happens to “other people,” 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 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 to protect him. I knew I was going to fight back.

As a person who truly 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. It is a tag that someone wears to designate that person as a Water Guardian. The laminated card serves as a reminder to the Water Guardian to watch the kids, to guard the water, EVEN when they are not swimming. So often my husband and I would ask each other—“Hey, can you watch the kids for a minute?” But parenting basically consists of one distraction after another. I knew it had to be MORE, a tangible “Tag! You’re it.” If one of these Water Guardian tags had been hanging in our beach house on June 10, I believe my story would have unfolded so differently. Levi would never have reached the water alone, our family’s hearts would never have shattered, and Levi would be running around with his sisters on Halloween night.

By June 28, only 3 weeks after I pulled my lifeless baby out of the water, I had created a non-profit: Levi’s Legacy: Water Guardians. So many tags were sold the first night that the entire system stopped working. Strangers from across the world have sent me pictures of their Water Guardian tags in action. I have cried countless tears as I watched the orders come in, grateful with every one that people are HEARING this message and taking action.

I wish this was not my story. I never imagined myself in the role of drowning prevention advocate. All I really want is 30 seconds back on June 10th. But, I will never get that time back, will never get a second chance to save my son.

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 prevention requires multiple layers of protection. You want to put as many barriers as possible between your child and the water:
*Install a 4-sided fence; this means the fence goes fully around the entire pool, so if a child walks out the back door, they meet a fence, instead of unguarded water.
*Make sure the fence has self-closing and latching gates.
*Utilize pool and door alarms.
*Supervision is vital. Designate a Water Guardian anytime there is access to water, even if the children are not swimming.
*Enroll your child in swim lessons. Make sure you choose the RIGHT kind, as all swim lessons are not created equal.
*Progress should happen in weeks and months, not in years. Observe a lesson; are the current students actually learning to swim? Do they get one-on-one instruction? Are they being taught to RESPECT the water and not just that it is fun?
*The main goal with swim lessons needs to be to provide your child with the skills to survive if they were to fall into the deep end. Look for lessons that teach roll-to-float or how to get to the side of the pool. I firmly believe that swim lessons would have saved Levi, and I will carry this regret for the rest of my life. Do NOT put off swim lessons.
*Remove toys from the pool EVERY TIME you leave.
*Learn CPR.
*Always, 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.
*Here is more info on barriers to protect against drowning.

Halloween will bring an emptiness with it, but so will the day after and the day after that. Every day feels impossible. I never would have imagined surviving this long after losing a child. Yet, we are and we will. My husband and I are determined that Lily and Reese will not lose their childhoods, too. We are choosing to live a purposeful life, determined that Levi’s legacy will not be one of anger and bitterness, but of love and family and hope.

I will never stop missing him. I will never stop wishing for a chance to go back and fight for him, to have known what I was up against. I will also never stop getting up every day and choosing to live for my daughters. I will never stop spreading this awareness, hoping that my urgent message changes the course for other families.

For more on Levi’s legacy, head over here.

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