We Thought Drowning Only Happened In Water

As a mother of three, when the sunlight becomes stunningly bright, the air thick with summer’s heat, my children want to swim.

They could spend every day of the summer in a body of water, whether it be an ocean, lake, or pool.

(I think they’d even settle for puddles!)

But with children swimming come many precautions you have to take.

And I always try to do my best.

I always make sure to use an organic sunscreen on my children prior to sun exposure. I always make sure that they are never alone near the water. Ever.

I always make sure to bring plenty of snacks and water to prevent dehydration, and I always make sure they wear life jackets.

I even make sure they don’t ingest too much water while swimming because I’ve read about secondary drowning.

What is secondary drowning?

It is defined as one of the post-immersion respiratory syndromes. It is the deterioration of pulmonary function that follows deficient gas exchange due to loss or inactivation of surfactant.

If a child (or adult) inhales water while swimming, it could happen. Or if someone accidentally falls into the water and ingests a bit, it could happen. It seems like such a far-fetched scenario. You swim, accidentally breathe in a bit of water, and drown hours later? What? I think since it had never happened to anyone that we knew personally, it seemed almost impossible. Drowning only happens in water!

But as scary as it sounds, don’t be too alarmed, its rare. It is only accountable for 1-2% of all drownings.

I’ve always made myself aware of when my children accidentally take in water to be safe.

However, I’m definitely an overly-paranoid mother. I’m a hypochondriac.

So when it happened to my four year old daughter, Lily, I tried to talk myself down about the entire experience. I assumed I was just overreacting.

My children and I had gone to my parent’s house to swim, like many other days. It was a normal day, and my children were excited to play in the pool with their grandma. I lathered on the sunscreen, gave them plenty of water beforehand, and once outside, promptly dressed them in their bathing suits and life jackets, which they love and enoy wearing. My two year old daughter had decided not to swim, as she had had an upset tummy earlier in the day, but Lily went right for the water. All was great.

My daughter, Liliana
My daughter, Liliana.

Around an hour and a half later, she decided that she had to go potty, so I dried her off, removed her life jacket, and sent her on her way inside. My mother and I began a conversation about my eight month old, who was happily playing in the shade. We joked and laughed. A few moments had passed, and my mother and I realized that Lily was not back yet. We quickly scanned the area, and we were both shocked to see her swimming (perfectly calm and happily) in the pool. Immediately, my mother and I, four feet away from Lily in the water, shouted “You don’t have your life jacket on!!!!”

Looking back, that was our main mistake. Lily is an excellent swimmer even without a life jacket, and never has an issue. She was perfectly fine until she saw our shocked expressions which caused her to panic. Immediately she went under in the shallow end of the pool, and my mother (who used to be a lifeguard) dived in, and I ran and picked Lily up out of the water. Her mouth and nose had been under water no more than maybe a few seconds.

She was obviously frightened and crying. I wrapped her in a towel and held her close as she coughed and gagged, and once she had calmed down, out of fear I scolded her for not coming to get her life jacket on before getting into the pool. She knew that she was not supposed to get into the water without it. She’s usually terrified to even get near the water without a life jacket on. We were all so surprised, and I was feeling incredibly guilty. I should have followed her inside the house. Then it wouldn’t have happened because I would have walked her out.

After maybe twenty minutes, she had calmed down but was acting very different. Incredibly tired and still coughing.

Right when she climbed into a chair and was so sleepy she could hardly keep her eyes open, the symptoms of secondary drowning flooded my thoughts.

I immediately began to panic. I could feel the familiar lump in the back of my throat begin to swell and my limbs begin to tingle as a panic attack was taking hold of my body. I told my mother about my concerns, and though she listened, she blew it off. Though not out of not taking the situation seriously, she just thought that Lily didn’t ingest enough water to cause an issue.

She talked me out of my panicked state, and I decided to put my trust into my mother. I decided that if Lily began to show other symptoms later, I would take her to the hospital.

We left my parents house soon after the incident because Lily was so exhausted. She had been pretty traumatized by the entire situation earlier, so I really thought that was the reason behind the fatigue.

I had to run some errands, and Lily immediately fell asleep once I began driving. Once I had parked in the store’s parking lot around a half an hour later, she woke up with a scratchy voice, and began to cry. She was complaining that her throat hurt and that it hurt to breathe. I instantly dropped back into that panic mode once more.

Luckily my mother had followed me to the same store, so I ran to her and asked her to check her out. My mother came over to her, and put her ear to her chest to see if she heard any rattling. She was doing the best that she could, and said that she sounded alright, and to take her home to let her rest.

Once home, Lily (who would normally be running around the house like she’d had a venti vanilla latte) immediately walked to the couch, climbed up, and fell asleep. Out of all the times that she has been sick, that had never happened. I got the other two children situated, and decided to look up the symptoms of secondary drowning once more.

“Symptoms appear 1 to 24 hours after the incident. They can include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, lethargy, fever and unusual mood change.”

Well” I thought. “She doesn’t have a fever or shortness of breath.”

I reached over and felt her head. She was burning up. My own body went cold.

Full on mom-panic set in and I was having a difficult time holding it together. I had read stories years ago about young children dying from this very incident. Having the same exact symptoms.

She woke a few times throughout that first hour at home crying that she had to throw up but couldn’t move. I would come to her side to help her, but she claimed that “the throw up wouldn’t come out.” She was so weak.

At that point I decided to call a nurse line for her to see what they would suggest. Since her cough was getting better, I thought that surely it couldn’t be secondary drowning. The nurse was incredibly helpful and had me feel for any swollen lymph nodes and check her throat for any white patches to rule out strep throat just beginning at a bad time. After he went through a lengthy list of symptoms and questions for me, the nurse told me to see how she acted in the morning. If she seemed any worse, to take her straight in anywhere, and to make sure she stayed upright to prevent aspiration pneumonia from starting.

I called my mother and told her what that nurse had told me right after, and she told me “I really think she will be fine. Just make sure she stays propped up. Try to calm yourself down.”

That was at 7pm.

By 8:30pm, Lily was so tired she was almost unresponsive. She couldn’t keep her eyes open, she refused any drinks or food, and her fever was high. When she would fall asleep, she would twitch all over. My instinct was telling me to do something. That something wasn’t right. She wouldn’t be this tired from falling under water for a few seconds. She was sick.

After another anxiety-filled hour pacing about the house, wondering if I should take her to the ER to be turned away for being paranoid (that may have happened before), Nick called me. I was so thankful for his call. I filled him in on what was going on, and immediately he told me “You need to take her in. Now.”

I called my mother and asked if I could come pick her up so I wouldn’t have to take my other kids into the hospital (my germaphobia makes me completely terrified of hospitals) and she agreed. I carried Lily to the car, and she let out a weak whine about how she wasn’t sick and that she didn’t need to go. Soon, we were all on our way.

Once we arrived, Lily and I walked in to a very empty ER lobby and an incredibly sweet nurse. Lily was dressed in all pink with a matching pink bow, and the nurses loved her to pieces. We were walked to a room and her vitals were taken. Those looked great. Phew. 

The doctor came in to look her over, and said she looked okay, but that he definitely wanted a chest X-ray to make sure there wasn’t any fluid residing in her lungs.

The entire process there was quick, and when we got the results of the X-ray, they also looked good. Okay, so what is going on with my child?

The doctor was kind and thanked me for bringing her in because so many parents don’t when something like this happens, but that there was nothing he could do since there was no obvious fluid in her lungs. Her lungs we efficient enough to clear it themselves. He told me to watch for any worsening of symptoms, and to bring her back if they did worsen. He told me to watch for signs of pneumonia, wrote a prescription of anti nausea medicine for her, and sent us on our way.

I felt relieved walking out of the hospital. Even though I may have been overly paranoid (again) Lily looked okay. That’s what was important. She was even beginning to talk more on the way home.

But the next day things changed again.

I woke up before her. That was my first hint that something was wrong. She always wakes up before me, and runs into my room waking me up. (usually before the sun is up!)

I quickly calmed myself down by reminding myself that she had a late visit to the hospital and was tired. But when I felt her, she was so incredibly hot. She woke up when I touched her face, and said she had to throw up. She walked into my bathroom, and instead of leaning over the toilet, she just laid on her belly on the floor. She said she wanted a bath. So I ran a cool bath. She didn’t play like she usually does, she just wanted to be washed and to get out. Once she was out, she fell asleep again.

I decided that if her fever didn’t break, I was going to take her back in.

We ran out to meet my parents, and once she was in the car, she was doing better. Her fever was essentially gone, and she was far more talkative. Finally. I thought.

We thought all was good until we got back home again. She slept all evening. Once asleep, her fever returned, and she refused to eat. She was drinking, though. I talked to another nurse, and she told me to watch for any worsening signs. That it could be chlorine poisoning instead of secondary drowning. My father had put chlorine in the pool that morning. The nurse said if her symptoms stayed the same, or got better, it could just be a virus. And that since her X-ray showed no fluid, it is okay to play a little bit of a waiting game to see what happens. In the meantime, I am giving her things to counteract any chlorine in her system.

That is where we are at right now. Lily currently still has a fever, is lethargic, has stomach issues, and is just not herself at all. I have managed to get some fruit down her this morning, and that is the first thing she’s eaten in almost 48 hours. We are seeing her pediatrician to hopefully get some answers, because I know this is directly related to the pool. This has been terrifying for everyone involved.

But this post is not to scare. It is not meant to cause panic in every parent who may read this, but it is to inform. 

never thought that this could happen to my child. To think that if her lungs were not as efficient as they are, or if she had ingested just a few more drops of water, we might still be in a hospital.

Secondary drowning is a real risk. It may be rare, but never ignore the symptoms if you happen to notice them in you or someone else. Especially in a child.

Always make sure to be with children around a body of water, and always make sure they are protected with a life jacket of some sort.

For more information on secondary drowning (or “dry drowning”) you can learn about it here and here.

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I am an overly-passionate, Earth-obsessed woman who spends her time raising three beautiful flowers, and growing with the other half of my soul.

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