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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Now a swimmer on the Bethesda Country Club team, Clay doesn’t remember the accident, only waking up in the hospital. Photo by Skip Brown

“Daddy, look at Clay,” the 4-year-old said, peering into the deep end that day in Bethany Beach. She’d gone to the side of the pool to dip her toes in. The little girl’s father—Matt’s friend—came over and saw Clay lying on the bottom, a towel at his side. Screaming for his wife, he dove into the water and pulled the boy out.

There was no lifeguard present when Clay fell in because Delaware law, like many other states, does not require private pools or those at motels, hotels and private camp grounds to provide one. (In Montgomery County, public pools are required to have a lifeguard, although the County Council is considering legislation that would allow hotels to operate their pools without providing a lifeguard as long as warning signs are posted and there’s an emergency alert system.) When Clay’s parents rushed into the pool area minutes later, Laura tried to perform her own version of CPR, but a bystander advised her to let her friend continue CPR instead—he was using a couple of fingers, rather than his palms, a method more suited to a young child. As the couple tried to help Clay, their friend’s wife quickly ushered her two daughters and Maison away from the scene.

Paramedics from the Millville Volunteer Fire Co. arrived quickly and began their efforts to resuscitate Clay. Laura and Matt went into the pool house and sat on the floor in shock. On the pool deck outside, the minutes passed as the team quickly intubated Clay, performed CPR, and stuck IVs into his knees. Then Laura saw one of the paramedics throw up her arm in triumph, tears streaming down the woman’s face. “They had his pulse back and they were breathing for him,” she says. Laura later learned that the woman had her own 3-year-old at home.

The paramedics packed Clay in ice—a form of hypothermia treatment that Laura calls a “Hail Mary” move—before placing him in an ambulance and racing to the fire station to wait for a helicopter to take him to a hospital. When the helicopter arrived, Laura and Matt were told that weight restrictions allowed only one of them to ride with Clay. They decided that Laura should go. As the helicopter prepared to take off, Matt and his friend jumped into Matt’s truck for the 21/2-hour drive to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. His friend was in tears.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

“Don’t say that again,” Matt said. “I don’t want to have that conversation ever again. I want to say it right now, it’s not your fault. We’re gonna get through this.”

Things were moving so quickly that Laura didn’t really comprehend that she was in a helicopter until she looked down through the clear floor of the cockpit and saw the ocean below. Sitting up front with the pilot, she was cut off from Clay and the paramedics working on him in the cabin behind her. Clutching her insurance card and Clay’s blanket, she suddenly realized that she could hear the paramedics talking urgently about her son through the headphones she’d been given.

“They said he was going into cardiac arrest. And I looked at the pilot and I said, ‘Can you turn these off?’ and then I said, ‘How long?’ He pointed to a clock, and there was like 14 minutes left until we landed,” she says.

Laura started thinking about walking into Clay’s room after he had died. No, she told herself. The last you heard they were keeping him alive. They were working on him.

“And then I had a moment where I wanted to jump. Because it was just too much,” Laura says. “And then I just said, ‘Just be where you are, as far as you know he is alive.’ I chanted to myself, ‘He’s going to be OK,’ the whole time until we landed.”

Matt kept checking his phone to see if Laura had landed at the hospital. He got a couple of calls from friends who’d already heard about Clay, including one who asked, “He’s going to be OK, right?”

“I don’t know,” Matt remembers saying.

When the helicopter landed at the hospital, a trauma team was waiting in the emergency room to whisk Clay away. “It was a sea of people. The yellow robes, the blue gloves. And they like swarmed us,” Laura says. After warming Clay’s body, doctors put him on a ventilator and into a medically induced coma to reduce the swelling that had begun in his brain. Then the waiting began.