The Underwater Epidemic

By Alyson Ward

Twenty seconds. That’s how long it takes for a child to drown, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That’s less time than the length of the latest quirky car insurance commercial playing endless loops on cable television. That’s less time than it takes to reheat a lukewarm cup of coffee. That’s less time than it took you to read the opening paragraph of this story.

Vanessa and Rolando Chang learned this lesson the hard way two years ago, when their 2-year-old daughter Tatiana wandered into their backyard pool in Cypress.

One minute, Tatiana was eating lunch and playing with her older sister. The next, she was being pulled from the water, lifeless and blue.

“She was right at the steps,” said her mother, Vanessa Chang. “She hadn’t even moved away from the steps.”

A Deadly Trend

Every summer, in backyards and apartment complexes, at community pools and splash pads, families like the Changs experience the unthinkable. Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationwide, three children die every day as a result of drowning. In Texas alone, 91 children perished in a drowning incident last year, and this year is already proving to be especially deadly. The toll has risen to 45, with nearly one-third of those deaths occurring in the Greater Houston area.

Tatiana, now 4 years old, was one of the lucky ones. She survived. She was revived by paramedics and her heart started beating again. But the lack of oxygen for an extended period of time caused significant brain and neurological damage that left her unable to walk, talk, or eat on her own.

“I never in a million years thought my kid was going to drown,” her mother said.

A Moment of Distraction

Tatiana was the third child in a family of kids raised with swimming pools.

The Changs took precautions. They moved the locks on their back door out of reach of little hands. They always required their toddler to get into the pool with inflatable water wings on her arms. And later that summer, Tatiana’s grandmother – a longtime swim instructor – planned to visit and teach Tatiana how to swim.

Vanessa has recited the details of what happened on June 15, 2017 countless times to family, to friends, to complete strangers – it’s a story she painfully shares to help prevent others from suffering the same tragedy that befell her family.

Tatiana’s older sister, Isabella, had invited a friend and her mom over to enjoy an afternoon in the pool.

“I put together some sandwiches and chips for lunch,” Vanessa said. Tatiana had been in the water already and removed her floaties to eat.

When lunch was over, the adults busied themselves taking leftovers back into the house. Vanessa told Tatiana to grab her floaties so she could put them back on – and at some point, with the older girls swimming and the moms moving in and out of the house, Tatiana had a moment by herself.

“The next thing I knew,” Vanessa said, “I heard Isabella screaming, ‘Mommy! Tati fell in the pool and she’s not breathing!’”

Tatiana was unsupervised, the family believes, for maybe two minutes.

Someone called 911. Vanessa and a neighbor tried CPR. Tatiana coughed and vomited, but she didn’t recover. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital near their house, then flown by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, where she remained for weeks while a care team worked to bring her back to life. She eventually began to breathe on her own again without the help of a ventilator, but her brain injury left her with seizures and a condition called “neurostorming,” where her brain is firing but unable to make connections. Therapy has helped give Tatiana some of her life back, but she is far removed from the energetic little girl she was before the incident.

Beating the Odds

Not all children who survive a drowning incident suffer neurological damage, but their close brushes with death have left lasting impacts on their families.

In February 2016, 18-month-old Dominic Larkin crawled through the doggy door and into the family’s back yard in The Woodlands. His mother – who had dashed upstairs just for a minute – found him lifeless in the hot tub. Dominic was taken to Children’s Memorial Hermann and survived, but his lungs became infected, his liver ruptured, his kidneys failed and he developed a blood clot. It was late spring before he was able to leave the hospital.

On Easter Sunday 2016, 3-year-old Ishaan Pavuluri slipped into the pool and went unconscious after an Easter egg hunt in a family friend’s backyard. “It all happened in less than a minute,” said his mother, Deepthi Bollu. Today, Ishaan has no long-term injuries or side effects, but he spent days at Children’s Memorial Hermann being treated for the wheezing breaths of stridor, a high-pitched sound caused when airflow is obstructed.

And in 2014, 3-year-old Anneliese Nuño climbed into a neighbor’s pool in the brief moment before her dad could put on her life jacket. The adults’ attention was diverted for a minute at most, and suddenly she was face-down in the water.

Anneliese was brought to Memorial Hermann by Life Flight and recovered a few days later.

“I had a nightmare, a mother’s worst nightmare, for almost three days,” said her grateful mother, Elizabeth Nuño. “And then I woke up.”

Accidental Advocates

Tatiana’s ordeal has transformed the Changs into passionate advocates for swim lessons and, for babies, water survival training.

They encourage parents to consider enrolling their children into a six-week Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) course. The training works with babies as young as 6 months old. It’s a “self-rescue” maneuver: When placed in water, babies learn how to flip to their backs and float.

“As soon as they can start crawling, they can learn how to float,” Vanessa said.

Swim lessons have been shown to reduce the risk of drowning, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But swim lessons can’t “drown proof” any child, so the group’s drowning policy still recommends barriers such as fences and gates for young children, even if they have been taught to swim.

The Changs know they are lucky. They still have their daughter. Still, the trajectory of their lives has changed – and so has that of their daughter.

They recently moved to Florida to be closer to family, and Tatiana has been back in the hospital for surgeries related to her accident.

“People want to hear that she’s walking again, she’s talking again,” Vanessa said. “That’s not how it works.”

It’s “painfully slow” progress, Vanessa said – and it is slowness the Changs have learned to live with, a stark paradox to a split-second accident that changed their lives forever.

Education is the Answer

Vanessa wants parents to be better educated about how to prevent drowning. “I think, as parents, we don’t realize how dangerous it is,” she said.

“When new parents take their babies home, they can’t leave the hospital until they’re in a car seat,” Vanessa said. Vaccinations and the “Back is Best” sleeping guidance are standard. “But nobody hands you a pamphlet that says, ‘You need to understand that your baby is more likely to die from drowning than anything else.’ I’d never heard that statistic until Tati’s accident.”

So she’s taking it into her own hands. In a video Vanessa posted on Facebook in June, she sits in the front seat of her car and speaks directly into the camera.

“If you have small children, you need to teach them survival skills in the water,” she says. “I know there are people that think it’s never going to happen to you. I was that person.”

It’s worth all their efforts, Vanessa says, if it can prevent what happened to Tatiana, and if it can save someone else’s life.

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