‘PLEASE come back. BREATHE!’: Mom turning ‘trauma into teachable moment’ after son nearly drowns

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“I thought I knew about water safety. I was wrong. I even remember myself saying a few weeks back after a toddler drowned in another close small town, ‘I just don’t see how this can happen.’ We watch our littles so closely, always. I thought drowning happened to other people. Until we became the other people. Some of these pictures are tough. But they are real. They are the consequence of Craig and I not being in the know.

Craig and I have three beautiful, healthy children. Two boys and one girl. Graham will be ten in November, JD (James Dean) will be five in December, and Ryn will be three in September. Craig is a firefighter and EMT for the town we live in, and I used to work in the medical field as well. It has been almost nine months since JD drowned, DIED, and came back to us. In hopes of creating a teachable moment for parents to be ‘hypervigilant’ to avoid the same scary scenario, I AM SHARING our story: JD’s Testimony.

  1. Because I just can’t stop reliving it. It is constantly in my head.
  2. Because I want you to know to be present in EVERYTHING!

JD is lucky, to say the least, to be alive after drowning in a pool WITH ADULTS IN IT on Friday, July 3rd, around 1:30 p.m.!! Yes, I have not stated this part of the story yet, but Craig and I were in the pool. This is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life…I was there, y’all. I have relived it 100 million times. We had been in town (Mustang, Oklahoma) since Wednesday the 1st, and Craig was to come up Friday morning after he got off his 24-hour shift at the station. We had a great two days with my in-laws, nieces, and nephews. They swam Thursday the 2nd all afternoon! All eight kids. YES. Eight kids.

Courtesy of Jenna Kerr

The morning of the 3rd, Craig got to town at about 10 a.m. and ran to the store with his mom to get drinks, food, and all the kids new goggles. While they were gone, I swam with all the kids. They jumped and they splashed. As soon as Craig and his mom returned, he got his swim trunks on and joined me in the pool, and his mom started lunch for all the kids. They kept telling us how much they were starving! Now, I can only imagine what you are thinking…there were eight kids. No wonder someone drowned. This is just it. Not one single kid was out with us when this happened. Everyone was supposed to be inside eating lunch.

Craig and I both thought JD was inside eating a hot dog. Not minutes before Graham came walking through the water with his limp, gray/blue body we saw him. He stepped out the back door onto the porch and said, ‘Mom, I farted.’ (Typical JD.) Craig and I were just chilling in the pool talking about the past two days. The bills I paid and the things he missed because he had just gotten off his shift. The pool was full of those floaties you sit in—you know, the ones that have the drink holders in them, and some odd, star-shaped kiddie ones.

And one LARGE YELLOW DUCK! I MEAN A SIX-FEET WIDE DUCK FLOATY. So, we could barely see much else in or on the other side of the 27’ pool. We NEVER saw him or heard a peep from him. Not a splash. NOTHING. The real shocking truth about drowning. Let me tell you first and foremost: drowning does not look like what people see in movies, with yelling and splashing; in our case IT WAS SILENT! We never saw him sneak into the pool. As JD told us that’s what ‘he was trying to do’ as soon as he woke up.

It was the absolute worst moment of my entire life. I remember screaming—uncontrollable screaming for someone to call 911. Praying out loud over and over with fifteen people gathered around. I never thought one of my kids would drown in a pool full of people. Much less Craig or I. I have always said, ‘My kids know the rules. They know not to get in.’ THEY DON’T!!!!!!!! You do not tell yourself this. No matter how many times you drill it into their heads, they do not truly know. I PROMISE.

Graham said, ‘He didn’t look like he was drowning. He was just a dark spot under water. But I knew bubba wasn’t supposed to be there.’ As I think about what Graham said, had JD been any older—say five, six, or seven, even—no one would have noticed it, because he just looked like he went underwater, and he was holding his breath. There was no splashing his arms around or yelling, ‘Hey, help me!’

Courtesy of Jenna Kerr

Fortunately for us, Craig is at the TOP of his game for CPR. I know CPR. I have performed CPR on patients. But I cannot tell you I would have been able to do this on my own child. I owe Craig my all for keeping it together to save our son. JD had no pulse. He was blue and lifeless. I do not know how many rounds of CPR he did. I know at one point I heard myself think he is not coming back, but God was telling me, ‘He’s going to come back, just keep doing it, Craig.’ I begged. I reminded Craig to keep going. CPR is one of the most exhausting things, really.

Craig kept pumping, kept giving breaths, and then water FINALLY started coming up, and hot dog, and blood. His eyes fluttered and chest rose in a big, trying gasp for air. When his eyes fluttered and I saw movement from his body, I LOST it. I knew he was alive. This was all in about four minutes. Four of the LONGEST minutes I have ever experienced in my entire life. I have always heard time slows down in an emergency, but it’s an odd sensation when it happens to you. What was a matter of ten minutes total seemed like an eternity.

He spent four days in the pediatric intensive care unit at OU’s Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Also, let me remind you, we were in the middle of a global pandemic. Which meant only ONE parent in the ER, PICU, and rooms with him at a time because of COVID-19. I will never forget showing up to the ER and not knowing what was going on inside with my child. Was he alive? Did he even make it off the ambulance? In all the commotion, Craig, of course, did not grab his phone. So, we had no way of communication. I sat against a brick wall of the concrete floor in the parking garage until finally I was able to go back. (Rules were broken, thank God.) My baby needed both his parents.

The next morning after the accident (Saturday), I sat there on the end of JD’s bed, thinking about every hour of the day before, every scenario, and just the times now. JD is almost four years old, and as you know he’s been hospitalized because of the drowning that took place. That Friday afternoon, the medical staff tried their hardest to avoid intubation. They threw a BiPAP machine on him in the ER first to see if it could help. BiPAP is like a CPAP machine that is used for sleep apnea, but it allows patients to get more air in and out of their lungs.

While neither of these devices might sound particularly alarming, remember this is not someone who has trouble sleeping; this was my three-year-old little boy. The doctors quickly realized this wasn’t enough. They told us they had to intubate. Fifteen people gathered in my son’s room. I knew I didn’t want to be there, and I also knew they usually ask you to leave for this part, so we were asked to leave the room and were taken down to a small, private waiting room, where Craig and I shared our first real moment since it happened. Fortunately for us, PICU nurses and doctors are amazing here, and as we were in the best children’s hospital in the state, I knew they had him.

Courtesy of Jenna Kerr

JD was on the vent for two days as we waited for his little body and lungs to heal. He had more drugs pushed through him than some adults do. He had at one point 23 wires coming from his little body. Since the times we are in, I share this part of our story as well: this was a time when there were enough ventilators, and there were 20 doctors and nurses who were able to rush to my son and save him. With a growing critical shortage of ventilators in the United States, it hurts my heart to think about what it might have been like if there wasn’t one available for my son. What it might have been like for the family who loses their loved one. What it is like for the nurse giving CPR, with no way to permanently save their patient.

This isn’t political; this is life or death. We must do everything in our power to provide these doctors and nurses with every piece of equipment and protective gear they need. They needed these things yesterday, and today is not soon enough. I tell you all this not just to scare you, but to scare the living daylights out of you. Stay in your house. In the PICU, a child has so many wires attached to them I was even afraid to touch my own baby for fear of harming him or messing something up. So, watch TV in your underwear at home, eat a piece of cake, and keep yourself, your babies, your grandma, your aunt, your neighbor, and my babies safe.

JD’s prognosis is perfect, and there is no residual harm from the drowning. He has his first T-ball game this Friday! Which is a God thing. I did not know if he would be able to talk, walk, eat, or do anything he was before. But he woke up PERFECT. He even started swimming soon after the accident and was QUICKLY enrolled in ISR swim lessons. Each day we were home after his release we learned more about what happened. The first day he woke up, he told Craig, ‘I sneaked into the pool.’ That’s an answer we thought we would never have. We asked WHY 1 million times before he woke. That same day, the first time I saw him, he said, ‘Mom!!! I sank to the bottom of the pool and someone saved me.’ Gut-wrenching. He remembers.

Courtesy of Jenna Kerr

Nearly five days after what happened, while driving home, he began to tell us about a dream he had when he went to sleep. He said, ‘I was asleep, and I was scared. I saw a window with a big man. And a big golden light. I told him I wanted my mommy and daddy and I was scared. And he talked to me.’ Never in my life have I been so speechless and in awe. It is one amazing thing to know your son has seen and felt the hands of God…and was able to come back to you. It is also consuming and terrifying (in a good way, I can’t think of the word I wanted to use) at the same time.

A few nights ago, we got a little more of his dream/story. We just laid down in bed after watering all our flowers and grass, and he just randomly started talking out of the blue about it. He said, ‘It was so dark, Mom. And then I saw the yellow light, and the big man in the window told me I shouldn’t be scared and to go home now. And fast like that bear. And to follow the big bear back to Mommy and Daddy.’ And he just goes on watching our movie.

I can’t fathom this. I can’t explain it. I don’t know what we have done to deserve this miracle second chance. There is a reason, we just don’t know it yet. We must pay it back, and JD has got something HUGE planned! It’s written in his book already, and we can’t wait to see it fold out. My baby boy was at Heaven’s gate. This we know. Whether it was God or maybe my grandfather, someone held his hand and guided him back to us as I pleaded on the ground in the mud here on Earth, watching Craig do chest compressions and breaths for our baby (which seemed like 200 hours). I full-heartedly believe and know God had us.

If you have any question in your faith, please look at JD’s story with an open mind. God is real. God is here. God is listening. God loves us. I felt from the very beginning we needed to turn this trauma into a teachable moment for other parents, as I continue to figure out how to heal myself. How to live with this fear. I know I can’t tie my children up and never let them be kids again, but I will NEVER forget what I saw. His lips and hands were blue when Graham walked up to us with him. His body was weightless and lifeless. He was gone. And I felt every bit of this. How, in that moment, everything I thought he would be flashed before my eyes and was gone. What I heard. The screams from Graham, my sister-in-law on the call with 911, my pleading out loud to God, Craig begging JD to come back and breathe, and so much more.

Courtesy of Jenna Kerr

This was not 100% preventable. I know things happen, but maybe it can make us all be more hypervigilant. Please take water safety seriously. I never thought this would be us. It was us, but thanks to God, Graham, and Craig, my son is still safely here. Learn from my mistakes so it is not you. Many parents believe if adults are near the pool, then somebody must be watching, but this can absolutely give a false sense of security. I have been researching tips to keep kids safe in the pool. So maybe we can have some normalcy when returning to our pool, or any body of water, for that matter. I am having a hard time even seeing him in the bathtub.

  • Lifeguard: water safety experts suggest parents enlist what is called a ‘water watcher,’ someone who stands next to the pool, constantly scanning the water for any signs of distress. The person should rotate every fifteen minutes to avoid losing focus. This person should ideally wear a lanyard or something to identify they are the ‘water watcher,’ so others know who has eyes on the water.
  • Formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88%. Y’all, this is HUGE! Maybe if JD had received lessons, we could have skipped this whole nightmare.
  • Don’t rely on flotation devices to keep kids safe; while those devices can help, if a child doesn’t know how to swim, an adult should be in the pool with them constantly and never let them be more than an arm’s length away.
  • It is also an important reminder to know or learn CPR. For JD, this and Graham is what saved his life. Hands down. Learn it. Know it. Train on it.

Drowning is the leading cause of death in ages 1-4. It is the second-leading cause of death in ages 1-14. Drowning prevention requires layers—fences, alarms, survival swim lessons. But constant supervision is the MOST VITAL key. The truth is, you can NEVER relax when children have the ability/access to be near water.

Every day I come across more and more groups and parents who have been exactly where we were. Some, like us, were saved from the heart-wrenching life we could now have, but most were not and LOST their child. I will always be honest about this subject. We were those parents who said, ‘This could never happen to our kids. We watch them all the time.’ We were naïve, and quite frankly, STUPID. Don’t be us. GET EDUCATED.

We were not educated on the subject. I had never even given it a thought. Never considered swim lessons for any of my children. NOT EVEN ONCE. Until it was us. Until I was the one sitting at the end of my 3-year old’s hospital bed, wondering when he woke if he would have brain function to even breathe on his own. All of this, why? Because we let him drown.

We failed to equip our child with anything that could have saved him. We should have KNOWN better. We failed to be educated on one of the top accidental killers of children today. I will always share our story, so maybe, just maybe, the right parents see this and you never have to see your child where I saw mine.”

Courtesy of Jenna Kerr

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jenna Kerr of Wichita Falls, Texas. You can follow their journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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