Three children drown in three weeks in Lowcountry. What a mom and experts want people to know

July 20, 2023
Bubbles rise to the surface of blue water.
Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 1 to 4. iStock

Three children have drowned in the Lowcountry over the past three weeks. That’s according to Mary Beth Vassy, pediatric trauma injury prevention coordinator at MUSC Children’s Health and Safe Kids Charleston area coalition leader.

“One was at a pool; two others were at ponds, whether that be a retention pond or whatever. These were all less than 4 years old. So we wanted to take the information that we have and push it out because we don't want this to happen to any more families and any more children. We don't want any other parents to have to grieve,” Vassy said.

Headshot of woman with long blonde hair. She's smiling and waring a blue jacket and shirt. 
Mary Beth Vassy

“All of those have been – they notice the child slipped away; they turn around, and the child is face down in the pool or the pond. This has all been silent. There has not been screaming. There hasn't been splashing. It has been very quiet.”

It’s a chilling reminder during a hot summer of the risks water poses. With that in mind, MUSC Children’s Health held a statewide news conference to discuss the problem, including ways to keep people safe.

Summerville mother Michelle Zieg was on hand with a heartbreaking cautionary tale. “It was June 6th of 2008 when we lost our 17-month-old son, Brayden,” she said.

The family had just moved into their house, which had an above ground pool. Zieg, four months pregnant and dealing with an upset stomach, said Brayden and her older son slipped out of the usually locked back door.

When she found Brayden, it was too late. “Brayden was face down in the water. We called 911.”

Little boy wearing a onesie is smiling while being held by an adult. They are holding hands. 
Brayden Zieg

Zieg said she now believes what happened was preventable. She just didn’t have the knowledge at the time. “So many layers that we didn't have that day that we know could have prevented that beginning with just educating ourselves, putting barriers in place, fences and alarms on doors and windows.”

Vassy elaborated on that, spelling out five steps that can help prevent drowning. She used information from National Drowning Prevention Alliance as a resource.

“That first one is barriers and alarms. So things that I think about when I see this would be having a fence around a pool, making sure that it's one that's not climbable by children, making sure that it has those vertical slats they can't slip through. And making sure that it is locked and latched to where children can't get into it.”

She said alarms can be key, too. “That could be putting an alarm on a door, on a window, on the gate to your pool. But they also have things that are called their personal alarms. And those things are things that the child can wear, and if they do get wet, it will alarm and make someone aware.”

The second step: active supervision. “So you shouldn't be going to the bathroom while you're supposed to be watching the kids. You shouldn't be going in to get a drink. You shouldn't be stepping away to take a phone call. You should be actively watching the children. And that's something that I feel like sometimes can get a little hard. I know everybody wants their own relaxing time and things, but when a life, when a child's life is in danger, it's super important that we remember that that active supervision is key.” 

Step three: water competency. “The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that children are usually ready to have swim lessons by age 1. It's actually been shown that formal swimming lessons for children ages 1 to 4 can decrease the chance of drowning by 88%.”

Four: life jackets. “They're usually made for an open body of water. So if you're out boating, 100% should have a life jacket on. And we want to wear a life jacket that is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Finally, Vassy cited emergency preparedness as the fifth step. “We understand that accidents are going to happen, but if, you know, if all of these other things fail and there does happen to be an emergency situation, then we want to make sure that we do have a way to call 911. We want to have a phone close by, by the pool,” she said.

“So hands-only CPR is a wonderful resource that we really suggest to most people who have children in general because that's useful even without drowning in any situation. So we do suggest that that is something that parents look into. And even anyone who's going to be around the children, so babysitters, grandparents, all of this information would be pertinent to them as well. Anyone who would be watching children enter around water.”

Headshot of woman with long dark braids, a doctor's white coat and an orange shirt. She is smiling. 
Dr. Leslie Thompson

Leslie Thompson, M.D., a pediatrician working in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Emergency Department, was also on hand at the news conference to describe what happens in a drowning. 

“It can be a bit complex. But ultimately, the body is not receiving enough oxygen. So obviously we need oxygen. We need blood to be flowing appropriately. So when water enters the lungs, they can't do their job of exchanging gas, providing our body with an adequate amount of oxygen. So then the brain ultimately doesn't get enough oxygen, and then it suffers damage. So then a person can eventually lose consciousness; they can stop breathing, and then essentially cardiac arrest could eventually follow that.”

She said some people who struggle in the water survive but may still need to see a doctor. “It can be mild symptoms that someone experiences all the way up to severe impairment.”

Thompson encouraged anyone who’s worried after a near-drowning to get checked out. “We're always happy to evaluate your children if you're worried. And hopefully, we can provide some reassurance if there's really not much going on. But please, never second guess yourself, just come in.”

Zieg, who now educates people about drowning prevention through her organization Because of Brayden and the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, offered this conclusion.“I think as parents, we just need to know it can happen to anyone. I'm a good mom, and I'm proud to say that. It was hard, and I went through all those stages, of course, in those early days, but I know now I'm a good mom. We did all the right things as being the best parents that we could. We just didn't know better. And that's why I'm so passionate about the education piece is just helping parents know better.”

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