Bethesda Magazine | July-August 2017

Kids and Water Safety

A Potomac mother shares the story of her son's nonfatal drowning. Find out what she's doing to promote CPR training and prevent drownings.

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Nearly six years later, Laura and Matt, both 42, are sitting in the sunroom of their Dutch colonial in March talking about the Saturday that changed their lives forever. For Laura, the details of the accident are as vivid as if it happened last week. Matt has chosen to let the memories fade, not wanting to relive the worst day of his life.

No one really knows how Clay ended up in the water, or how long he was there before he was discovered. There was no lifeguard on duty at the time. What Laura and Matt have pieced together is this: Clay most likely tripped over his towel and fell in as he walked along the deck from the shallow end to the deep end of the L-shaped pool.

Doctors credit the CPR provided by the Metros’ friend with saving Clay’s life. Now 9, he has no memory of the accident, only of waking up in a Delaware hospital surrounded by relatives and family friends. He says he doesn’t think about what happened, and easily parrots what he’s heard from his family when asked about it. “I slipped on a towel and I drowned,” he says.

Though it may seem hard to believe that no one noticed the boy as he fell in, Laura and Matt understand why. “You’re conditioned to hear splashes and things like that at a pool. You’re not going to notice if you hear something splash in a pool,” Laura explains. “And this is not like Jaws. You’re not flailing around. Literally, people and children, they fall in and they sink silently and that’s it. It’s a very, very silent, fast thing that occurs that often is just not noticed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks drowning fifth among the leading causes of death by unintentional injury in the U.S.; about 10 people die every day from drowning, and one in five are 14 or younger. More children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects. For every child who dies, another five receive emergency medical care. Clay was among the more than 50 percent of nonfatal drowning victims treated in emergency rooms whom the CDC says “require hospitalization or transfer for further care.” Victims can suffer “severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities, and permanent loss of basic functioning.”

After the accident, Laura struggled to make sense of what had happened to her son. She began to research drowning and discovered how devastating it can be to families of those who die—and those who survive, like Clay did. The more she learned, the more she realized that drowning is “completely 100 percent preventable.” She’d found her calling.

“We know the answer to this problem,” she says, whether it’s teaching kids to swim, improving pool safety or making sure people know CPR. Before Clay’s accident, she had planned to restart her marketing career; she now knew she would dedicate her life and skills to helping spread the word about water safety and what to do in an emergency.

“I felt like it was my duty because I was given the gift of Clay’s life,” she says. “I just felt like this is my job. This is why this happened to me, and he survived so I could tell this story.”

The Metros and Laura’s father, Ron, who died in September at the age of 71, created The C.L.A.Y. Foundation in 2012 with a wide-ranging mission to advocate for swim instruction, CPR training, increased availability of automated external defibrillators (AEDs), and year-round warm-water swimming facilities.

That first year, Laura attended the annual conference of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), but she wasn’t sure if she belonged there because Clay had survived. Other families she met assured her that she did. “Your son drowned and then he came back to life,” they told her.

Laura soon discovered that many other foundations were focused on aspects of prevention, such as improving pool safety and promoting the use of life jackets, and were mostly started by families who’d lost someone. With Laura as its driving force, The C.L.A.Y. Foundation became a founding member of Families United to Prevent Drowning, a group that represents several of those foundations. The families work together to make sure that people seeking information on a particular aspect of prevention are connected with the foundation that can provide the best resources. Laura handles social media for the group and has helped develop promotional materials, including a pack of glossy rectangular cards, each one sponsored by a family foundation and featuring the story of a loved one who drowned or survived a drowning.

Laura also got involved with the NDPA, later becoming a board member, and is now working with the International Code Council and the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals to get states to adopt better safety rules for pool construction, such as making sure children can’t be entrapped by pool drains.

Recognizing that she needed to narrow her mission, Laura rebranded The C.L.A.Y Foundation in 2015. Now known as CPR Party, the foundation has partnered with Gaithersburg-based Rescue One, an emergency and safety training company, to make CPR training easy, affordable and accessible by offering lessons during casual hourlong gatherings.