Laura Metro is one of the lucky ones. Her son, Clay, survived. But Metro will never forget the day Clay, then 3, was pulled out of a swimming pool, looking lifeless.
Clay, now 6, was in a coma for two days before recovering from his fall into the "swim at your own risk" community pool in Delaware. While Metro walked her dog, family friends watched the group's children in the pool. After Clay fell in, one of the men in the group performed CPR. That saved Clay's life, Metro said.
"It was one of those cases where everybody's watching and no one's watching," said Metro, of Potomac, Md. Now, she runs the CLAY Foundation (theclayfoundation.org), a nonprofit that distributes "CPR Party" kits to teach lifesaving techniques in homes.
The bad news: Many swimmers are not as fortunate as Clay Metro. An average of 10 people drown each day in the U.S., according to the American Red Cross. Eighty percent are adults. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children younger than 5.
The good news: Grass-roots nonprofits like the CLAY Foundation have teamed with national organizations like the Red Cross and YMCA of the USA to form an army of water-safety advocates. Their initiatives range from pediatricians in one Florida county giving parents of newborns "prescriptions" for swimming lessons to the Red Cross' new Centennial Campaign to teach 50,000 people to swim.
They all share the same message: We can prevent drownings.
Take the plunge
"The No. 1 cure for drowning is swimming lessons," said Mick Nelson, facilities director for USA Swimming Foundation (usaswimming.org). "Everyone in the family should learn to swim or at least float until help arrives. Older kids and adults should learn to save people they're supervising."
Even if you do not have a pool or live near water, your family members will be in the water at some point in their lives, said the advocates. "Every day, I read about someone who drowned because of a situation they didn't think they would be in," said Nelson, who tracks drowning incidents. "Hard rains create deep water around a clogged street drain, teens climb a fence for an unauthorized swim, someone wades into the ocean and gets pulled under by a rip current."
Over the years, national swim-safety groups have shifted their emphasis from swim-stroke improvement to basic water safety at early ages, said Connie Harvey, aquatics director for the Red Cross. "We start at age 6 months, when the parent learns water safety and the baby learns to back float," she said. As children progress through lessons, they learn more than stroke skills. "They learn to call for help instead of going into unsafe water, not to go into the water without adults' permission, to stay within an adult's reach," she said.
A slim wallet is no excuse for skipping lessons. There's an abundance of free or discounted lessons from park districts, schools and YMCAs. The Y's Swim Access program provides transportation to swimming lessons.
"In some areas, we take the teachers to the students," said Kristine Meyerson, aquatics specialist for the YMCA.
You are never too old to learn to swim. "We're seeing more adults taking lessons now," Harvey said. "Part of it is swimming for fitness and part of it is learning to swim so they can do water sports like kayaking. If you're an adult who is just learning, you've got plenty of company."
If you have a backyard pool, swimming lessons are one of many "layers of protection" recommended by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. Pools should be surrounded by fences that cannot be climbed and have gates that self-close and self-lock. Alarms can alert parents if toddlers approach pools. Nonswimmers should wear life jackets.
Do not compromise your family's safety because you are afraid to speak up. A study by Safe Kids Worldwide said in 9 out of 10 children's drownings, adults claimed to be supervising the children. Not every "watcher" watches and not every watcher can save another person in trouble.
Instead of assuming you are safe, said the advocates, ask. Is the teen who is hired to watch the kids at the neighbor's pool party a certified lifeguard? Can that dad who is overseeing the kids at the beach really swim? Where are the life jackets at the office-party cocktail cruise?
The Red Cross defines "water competency" as the ability to get in water over your head, return to the surface and float or tread water, swim 25 yards and get out of a pool without a ladder. USA Swimming's definition also includes the ability to retrieve someone from the water while being fully clothed.
Although 80 percent of us say we can swim, only 46 percent of us are water-competent, according to the Red Cross. "Never assume the person in charge can swim," Harvey said.
"Plan your swimming party where there are lifeguards," Meyerson said. Hotel pools, private beaches or pools, and subdivision clubhouse pools tend to be "swim at your own risk" (sans guards). Plan your parties at municipal pools and beaches, she advised, where there are usually lifeguards on duty.
Before you hire a teen to supervise a private party, ask for his or her lifeguard certification. "Quiz her about her action plan," Harvey said. "Make sure she has a phone to call 911 and knows your address."
Beware of parties that mix alcohol and water sports. Forty percent of adult drownings are alcohol-related, according to USA Swimming.
If your family plans to spend much time in the water this summer, take advantage of the many free or inexpensive water-safety aids.
Print out the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Pool Safety Pledge at poolsafely.gov/pledge. Children pledge to never swim alone, to ask for swimming lessons, to stay away from pool and spa drains and to be safe. Adults pledge to designate "water watchers," make sure their children can swim, learn CPR and make their pools safe.
Search the Internet for "water watcher card" for a downloadable tag you wear, then pass to another adult when you delegate responsibility of watching others in the pool or at the beach, instead of casually telling them you are leaving.
Bottom line, we must be proactive, not reactive, Metro said. "We all have wouldas, shouldas, couldas," she said. "My son was taking swimming lessons. Adults were on hand. But (drowning) almost happened. Now, we're working hard to make sure fewer families have to go through what we went through."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun