Lindsay Kujawa is a self-described “paranoid” mother.
“I’m always ‘that’ mom,” Kujawa, a lifestyle blogger at Delighted Momma and mother of two, told me. “I’m always thinking about the worst case; I’m a helicopter mom, I feel like I’m always thinking about things before they happen.”
Which is exactly why, when Kujawa settled in next to her then two-year-old son Ronin on the steps of the pool at her niece’s birthday party, she thought he would be safe.
“I was sitting right on the edge of the outside of the spa, just a few inches from where Ronin was playing,” Kujawa wrote on her blog about the incident that changed her life. “I shifted my sitting position to talk to my sister-in-law. I turned around for maybe 5 seconds tops. I turned back around to take a peek at Ronin and he was not on the step.”
It was then, Kujawa says, that “mom panic” set in.
“It was literally the most terrifying feeling in my gut,” Kujawa told me, describing the moment when she realized that she could no longer see her son. “It was sheer panic, my eyes scanned the pool and my heart just dropped … I was trying to find my son and almost everything just went white.”
Almost immediately, she spotted her son’s head, bobbing up and down by the whirlpool jets, frantically trying to get air. Kujawa quickly pulled him out and although he was coughing and sputtering water as one would expect, he otherwise seemed fine.
“He wasn’t blue when I pulled him out,” she notes. “I have firefighters in the family — everybody was there, and they were like, ‘he looks totally fine.’ We didn’t have to do CPR or anything crazy. He was fine.”
Kujawa estimates that the whole ordeal — from the moment she turned around for that split second to the moment she fished her son out of the pool — was only about 20 seconds. “It was a very short amount of time,” she explains. Although she noticed that her son seemed extra tired after the incident, Kujawa rationalized that the stressful event was likely to blame, and she and her family soon returned home.
But instead of improving at home, Ronin acted even less like himself.
“He was acting so lethargic,” Kujawa said. “You know your kids. We got home and he was just really, really acting beyond tired. I was putting his pajamas on and he was acting like he wanted to fall asleep. He’s high-energy, so it was so unlike him.”
Kujawa decided to call her son’s pediatrician, just in case. “In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘he seemed totally fine, he was under for such a brief amount of time,'” she said. But instead of getting reassurance from the doctor, the pediatrician insisted that he go to the emergency room right away.
The family rushed to the ER, where Ronin received swift treatment as he went downhill right in the hospital waiting room. “He was basically asleep, like unconscious,” Kujawa remembers. “There was no color in his face.”
Kujawa was shocked to be told that her son had suffered from what is sometimes called “secondary drowning.” Basically, her son had aspirated water into his lungs as a result of his drowning incident and the resulting inflammation in the lungs interfered with his body’s ability to exchange oxygen properly.
And while stories of “secondary drowning” or “dry drowning” have been making their way around the Internet recently, it’s important to realize that those terms aren’t really accurate.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine and the World Health Organization’s definition, drowning is drowning. Terms like “dry drowning” or “secondary drowning” are actually misleading, because the truth is, any experience when an individual goes underwater and there is some kind of respiratory impairment that happens as a result (in Ronin’s case, the tiredness was because his body wasn’t getting enough oxygen), it’s a drowning.
You can survive a drowning, you can recover from a drowning, you may not even need medical attention from a drowning, but it’s still a drowning.
The primary risk of drowning is the threat to proper air exchange in the body. I spoke to pediatrician Dr. Carlo Reyes, assistant medical director of the emergency department and vice chief of staff at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, CA to get his advice for parents. Dr. Reyes says in many fatal drownings, it’s not actually the lungs filling up with water that causes death, but actually spasms that occur when water hits the airway, causing the body’s supply of air to be cut off. This can lead to complications in the brain from lack of oxygen, among other issues.
When water does enter the lungs, there’s a whole host of complicated stuff that goes down that can cause major complications even after the person is rescued. Basically, the water that gets in the lungs causes inflammation and the lungs will not work properly, which can lead to symptoms like Ronin’s that appear somewhat delayed and worsen even hours after the drowning incident.
Although Ronin was lucky to make a full recovery after his drowning, Kujawa will never forget what a close call her son experienced that day. “They said it would have been pretty bad,” she explains. The medical staff somberly told her that had she and her husband simply put Ronin to sleep that night, he might have never woke up.
Kujawa’s story is a scary one — and it can also be confusing as you are most likely wondering (as I did in interviewing for this article) how in the heck you can know if your child is in danger after going underwater. After all, even a small amount of water can cause serious harm if it gets in the lungs or causes the airway to block air, so when do you need to seek medical attention and when is it safe (literally) to just keep swimming?
1. Know the definition of drowning
“People blur the distinction from a brief choking to an actual drowning,” explains Dr. Reyes. “If we make the definition of drowning as respiratory impairment from submerging in liquid, if someone is briefly under the water and come up right away, that’s not a drowning. If it’s witnessed, if it was seconds, they coughed a bit and then they were fine, that’s not a drowning.”
2. Assess the situation
Dr. Reyes gives a helpful breakdown of the different types of drownings that may occur to determine what level of medication attention would be necessary. A drowning is:
- If a child is in the water for a period of time and either loses consciousness or has respiratory distress when coming out of the water.
- If the individual loses consciousness.
- If the child is under the water for a period of time, but gagging as they come up and has persistent coughing and any difficulty breathing.
3. Understand the symptoms
Dr. Reyes explains that parents probably don’t need to call if the underwater incident was witnessed (“A lot of these drownings look fine, because we underestimate the period of exposure especially because it was unwitnessed,” he explains), the child has no respiratory distress, and looks completely fine. But, for any of the following symptoms, a trip to the ER is warranted.
- Any loss of consciousness
- Persistent difficultly with breathing
- Extreme lethargy
- Persistent cough — looking back, Kujawa describes how her son had a “small, wheezy” cough throughout the evening.
- Any change in mental status
- Any sign of respiratory distress
In the end, knowing that even around “paranoid” mothers, accidents can happen, it is important to know what to do in the event that your child drowns.
Because all it takes is a second.