Our Daughter Nearly Drowned, And This Is What I Learned

by Erica DeSpain
Originally Published: 
A toddler lying in a hospital bed next to a picture of two parents holding their children and kissin...
Erica DeSpain

Back in September, I experienced the most painful 30 seconds of my entire life — I thought our 2-year-old daughter was dying. My husband screamed a sound I’ve never heard him make. We saw her floating facedown in a hot tub, and the sheer horror of seeing her blue, seemingly lifeless body pulled out of the water is an image I’m fighting to move past.

Fortunately, this story has a very happy ending, and I feel comfortable sharing a few details about my daughter Hadley’s accident. I don’t want this post to be emotionally charged but rather an objective story that hopefully serves as a cautionary tale.

Our weekend was a happy one. It was our family’s first visit to my in-law’s new home in Austin, and we spent nearly the entire Labor Day weekend frolicking in their in-ground pool. On Sunday, we ate lunch downtown and then headed back home to swim for a couple hours. We planned to grill steaks that evening and then pack our car in preparation to make the long drive back home on Monday.

Around 5 p.m., Hadley got out of the pool and said she was done swimming. She started taking off her arm floaty (puddle jumper) but needed help from a family member. I okay-ed it being taken off of her because we were ready to get out, dry off, and eat dinner.

Allowing that floaty to be taken off of her was my misstep.

Jamie and my father-in-law (who was holding our infant) were now out of the pool, and my mother-in-law and I were about to follow.

Then a casual new conversation started that involved all four adults. The men were out of the pool and looking into the pool talking with us women. There’s a hot tub off to the side that flows into the pool about 6 feet (possibly less) from where we were all standing. Without anyone noticing, Hadley climbed up onto the side of the hot tub and silently slipped under the water. (My heart is pounding as I type this.)

It was completely silent. It was fast. We were right there. We’ve beaten to death the topic of how she could have possibly slipped passed four adults who were feet away, but she did. If this doesn’t make any sense to you, I can relate. It doesn’t to me either. It was so fast. In a snap, I almost lost my baby.

I’d read article after article this summer about how drowning doesn’t look anything like the movies, so I was ready to prevent it from happening to my girls. Jamie and I even talked two days prior to our trip about extra pool precautions we were going to take and talked about our anxieties. She’ll keep her floaty on. There will be an extra lock on the door that my in-laws installed. We will never take our eyes off of her for a second. We will have constant conversations with her about not going near the water unless she’s with an adult.

We truly thought we had all of our bases covered.

So, Jamie grabbed Hadley out of the pool. He immediately threw her on a small patch of grass and started performing CPR. He did chest compressions. He’s did mouth-to-mouth. She wasn’t responding. He continued. Nothing.

At that point, I felt as if I was out of my body. I can’t explain the things that were going through my mind. I was so hysterical that my brother-in-law was holding me back as I screamed because all I wanted to do was hold her. It was horrific.

She finally coughed blood, but we both naively thought her body was releasing fluids and that we were losing her. Then she coughed a lot more blood and then water twice. That was the best moment of my entire life.

Jamie threw her to me, I held her, and he took over the 911 call. The paramedics came, and I begged them to tell me she was okay, but they wouldn’t do that. They just kept telling me that she was in good hands and that she was alive.

They took over, and I grabbed a cover-up from my suitcase to throw over my soaking wet swimsuit, made arrangements with Jamie for him to follow the ambulance so that he could take care of Sadie (I’m breastfeeding and needed her with me), and we were off.

I remember being in the ambulance and seeing two police SUVS flying behind us, and I asked the paramedic if they were with us (obviously they were). I just couldn’t believe it. It was all just hitting me that this was real life.

We were taken to Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin and were in the ER for nearly four hours. We had to repeat what happened 100 times, and she had to go through so much testing. I remember one doctor looking Jamie square in the eye and telling him that he absolutely saved her life.

We both just lost it.

We were moved to a room that was a level down from ICU, and they let Sadie,our 4-month-old, stay with us.

Though the doctors told us almost immediately upon arrival that Hadley was going to survive this and likely didn’t have severe brain damage, I didn’t breathe my first real sigh of relief until she accepted a popsicle around midnight. She loves popsicles, and she was “with it” enough to want that beautiful purple popsicle.

Erica DeSpain

Twenty-four hours later we were released and sent home to attempt to move on with our lives with our healthy miracle.

Erica DeSpain

Wearing donated clothes the hospital kindly gave me so I could get out of my wet swimsuit

Erica DeSpain

My hero and miracle

Erica DeSpain

If I could have seen this ordeal coming, I would have prevented it. Despite everything we tried to do to keep her safe, we just couldn’t see this coming.

We’ve had a lot of time to talk, cry, and reflect on what happened and how to make sure this never happens to our children or hopefully any child again.

These are some of our takeaways:

1. Having more adults — more sets of eyes — around can be beneficial or hurtful.

It’s easy to identify that I let my guard down when it came to watching Hadley closely because I assumed there were more people to watch her, but in this situation, more people actually served as a distraction. We all thought someone else was watching her.

2. Floaties don’t take the place of knowing how to swim.

When Hadley was wearing her floaty, she knew she could be independent. We assume she forgot that she didn’t have it on anymore. Our new goal is to get her and her sister in private swim lessons and teach Hadley to swim before we’re around a pool again. Jamie and I hope this will lessen our anxiety the next time we’re around a pool. She will be 3 in two months, so we hope this is attainable by next summer.

3. CPR certification and recertification is important and a skill that’s actually lifesaving if done correctly and with confidence.

I had no idea that Jamie goes through annual CPR recertification with the Army, so I was blown away by his ability to jump into action and do what he knew needed to be done. The last time I was certified in CPR was 4 1/2 years ago, and it’s scary to think how much of those skills I’ve forgotten. It’s not knowledge that’s applied often, so forgetting it is easy. I’m now signed up for an upcoming CPR certification class that also includes other general lifesaving skills, like the Heimlich maneuver, because I want to be confident in my ability to help my family and others around me if a situation arises so out of the blue.

In the days following Hadley’s accident, I received many messages that looked like this:

Erica DeSpain

And this:

Erica DeSpain

And this:

Erica DeSpain

These messages mean everything to us.

4. We’ve all heard that we should be kind to everyone we meet because you never truly know what battle those around you are silently fighting.

The day after we got home from the hospital, I took Hadley to her dentist appointment. We waited for about 20 minutes before we were called back, so Hadley played with a few other girls in the toy area. I remember tears filling my eyes as I watched two older girls so gently playing with my daughter. These sweet girls, probably around age 5, had no idea what this little girl had just gone through, and they brightened her morning by including her in their playtime. I also thought about the other moms and dads all around me. While they played on their phones, I sat there with my heart pounding with anxiety that just wouldn’t let up after the accident. To them, I surely appeared put-together. Inside, I felt ready to sob at the drop of a hat. This whole ordeal has reminded me of the aforementioned lesson. Be overly kind and give grace.

5. Neither of us can imagine how we would have gotten through those first 24 hours without our faith in the Lord.

When we didn’t have the right words to share with our family, friends, doctors, or even each other, we closed our eyes and just prayed. We prayed alone. We prayed together. We read Bible verses to find rest, peace, and hope. This situation has strengthened our faith, and we’re so thankful that God never left our sides.

For more information regarding swim safety and CPR, visit ISR swim lessons and the American Red Cross.

To nurse Jackie at Dell Children’s Hospital: We are still convinced that you’re an angel on earth. Thank you for caring for our family and loving us through the couple hardest days of our lives. You deserve all the recognition in the world for the genuine way you take care of your patients and their families. Thank you for being you. We will never forget you.

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