When Melissa and James Larkin had a swimming pool installed in their backyard several years ago, they briefly considered adding a safety net or installing a tall, latched gate around the water, but decided the additional protective measures were unnecessary. It was a decision they would come to regret.
The family had placed childproof locks on all the doors at their home in The Woodlands. The two older children had taken swimming lessons and knew how to swim and the youngest, Dominic, just 18 months old, was still too little to turn a doorknob.
“We thought we were doing everything right to protect our children,” Dominic’s father, James Larkin said. “But you can never predict when something completely unexpected will happen that will totally upend your life.”
On Feb. 13, 2016, the family of five had just finished eating lunch together when Melissa and the children ran home to grab a gift bag for an afternoon birthday party. Melissa dashed upstairs, but when she came back downstairs, Dominic was nowhere to be found. She called out his name, quickly scouring the room with her eyes to see where he might have hidden. And then she noticed the back door had been pried open.
The family’s large dog had somehow managed to nudge open the heavy back door and crawl through the doggy door in the locked exterior storm door. Following closely behind was little Dominic. When Melissa realized that the door was ajar, she raced outside to find her baby boy lying on his back in the water, not moving and not breathing.
Melissa pulled Dominic from the water and immediately started CPR while their oldest child, an 11-year-old girl, dialed 911. Melissa managed to resuscitate the toddler but he sucked in pool water and some of his lunch during CPR. When paramedics arrived, Dominic was breathing on his own and he had a pulse, but he was crying and coughing and his eyes were closed.
Every day across the United States, 10 people die from drowning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty percent of those are children under the ages of 14. Sadly, children most at risk of drowning-related injuries are the youngest and most vulnerable: Babies and toddlers between the ages of 1 and 4.
The number of childhood drownings in Harris County this year has already reached eight cases, equal to the total number of drownings in the county in all of last year. Driven by this recent spike, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital recently teamed up with Texas Children’s Hospital and the Houston Fire Department to raise awareness about this very real problem. While the statistics are disturbing, drowning cases are largely preventable. Constant adult supervision is critical, and pools should be properly maintained and secured. In addition, knowing CPR can spell the difference between life and death for an unresponsive child. That’s especially true in Dominic’s case.
On that fateful day in February, when James got a call from his daughter that Dominic had fallen into the family hot tub, he rushed home to be at his side. As the paramedics loaded the little boy into the ambulance, James called out to his son to be brave.
“I just told him, ‘Daddy’s here. Keep breathing. Keep fighting. We are right here with you,’” he said.
The family requested that he be transported to Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, one of only two pediatric Level I trauma centers in Houston, and Melissa hopped in the ambulance for the ride from the Woodlands to the Texas Medical Center while James found a neighbor to drive him.
In the pediatric ICU, Dominic’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Because he had aspirated, his lungs quickly became severely infected. A ventilator alone wasn’t enough to help heal him; he needed something more intensive to pull him through. Dr. Matthew Harting, a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, and his ECMO team thought that Dominic was an appropriate candidate to receive treatment via extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support, which allows the lungs to rest and heal while an oxygenator does the work via the help of a pump.
“When you have to tell a family that their child needs to go on ECMO treatment, that’s some of the worst news you can get as a parent,” said Dr. Harting, who is also the medical director of ECMO at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. “But through it all, the Larkin family was so strong and so brave. They managed to stay so positive at a time when it would have been easy to think negatively, to worry that the worst is going to happen. They are truly an incredible family.”
For weeks, Dominic’s tiny body fought to recover from his injuries and the family clung to hope, remembering the results of his initial brain scan that showed that he was neurologically intact.
“That was the good news,” Dr. Harting said. “If children are neurologically devastated, I can’t change that. But in Dominic’s case, his brain was fine. His little lungs just needed some support for a while.”
As Dominic lie motionless in a hospital bed, his dad consciously ignored the tubes and wires, and instead chose to see Dominic as he wanted to see him: Laughing, smiling, playing, just as he had before he tumbled into the water.
“I just kept thinking he’s going to get better,” James Larkin said. “In situations like this when you have zero control, that’s a horrible feeling to lose control of your life, of your child’s life. One of the hardest parts of a tragedy like this is that the bottom falls completely out from under your life. Suddenly, it’s not your life anymore. But it was miraculous at the same time, too, because it brought our family even closer together.”
It took nearly three months for Dominic to recover from his injuries, but remarkably he managed to bounce back. He was discharged from Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in early May and spent several weeks working hard with his therapists at the Preemie Place in Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital, which offers specialized therapy for premature babies and small children, to regain the skills that went dormant in the weeks he was unconscious.
The Larkin family said they are deeply grateful for the staff at both Memorial Hermann locations for helping their son battle through the most difficult journey of his short life. This tragedy has also left them eager to share the lessons they’ve learned with other parents.
“First, it’s definitely wise to put up fencing around your pool,” James Larkin said. “The day after Dominic’s incident, I called someone to install a fence around our pool and so did all of my neighbors.”
Secondly, it’s critically important to know how to perform CPR in a life-threatening situation.
“Every minute counts,” he said. “If Melissa hadn’t performed CPR on Dominic, he might have gone several minutes without oxygen and that could’ve lead to a dramatically different outcome for our son. We were fortunate that Dominic has survived and thrived after this ordeal but not every family is so lucky. This tragedy has taught us how fragile life can be and we are so blessed to have our son back home with us.”