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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On that March afternoon, Clay returns home from playing with friends in a nearby creek. Bits of mud dot his long, baggy shorts and his sneakers as he walks into the family’s sunroom and heads for a chair upholstered in white fabric. Laura tries to stop him from sitting down.

“Will you go change your pants for me?” she says just before he plops onto the chair. “Clayton—I just cleaned that cover.”

A rising fourth-grader at Wayside Elementary School in Potomac, Clay is like many boys his age: He loves sports, board games and riding his scooter. He’s on the swim team at the Bethesda Country Club and is particularly fond of freestyle and breaststroke. “In meets, I usually do 31:45 [seconds],” he says proudly, recounting his 25-meter swimming time. “I can do a backflip.”

“He has no fear,” Matt says.

After the accident, two days passed before Laura and Matt knew whether Clay would wake up—and whether he’d still be the same outgoing little boy with the infectious smile. During that time, family and friends arrived from the Bethesda area. Laura’s best friend, Jenny Camps, had also been staying in Bethany that week. She and her husband, Jon, had a son the same age as Clay at the time and twin daughters the same age as Maison. The two families were close—Clay and Maison called her “Aunt Jenny”—and had planned to get together for a barbecue. Camps was on the beach when she heard about the accident. When she got to the hospital, she saw Clay’s small body hooked up to tubes in the intensive care unit.

“I know it’s going to be OK,” she told Laura. “I don’t know why, but I know it’s going to be OK.”

Laura’s dad, Ron, was at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle when he got the call with the news. He told Laura when he reached her that night that he wanted to fly home, but she told him to board the cruise ship and pray there was no reason for him to rush home. Ron later told her that he went onto the ship’s deck that night and cried as he prayed: Whatever I’ve ever done, anything I’ve done, please just save this boy.

“My dad wasn’t really a God guy, and he was like, Kill me now, strike me dead. Fix this,” Laura says. “And it was the same thing I felt.”

For the first 24 hours, doctors didn’t talk to Laura and Matt about Clay’s prognosis. Instead, they explained the steps they were taking in an effort to stabilize him. “What I remember is they managed our expectations to whatever the next procedure was going to be,” Laura says.

The couple received encouraging news when a CAT scan performed in the middle of the night showed no increase in swelling. Brain swelling wasn’t the only concern, however; tests showed Clay also had developed a methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection from the pool water that he’d swallowed, and he had pneumonia. Clay was also wearing a neck brace because doctors didn’t know if he’d injured his neck when he fell into the pool.

By Monday, two days after the accident, Clay’s condition had stabilized enough that the doctors said they were going to reduce the flow of oxygen to test whether he could breathe without the ventilator. When doctors determined that he could breathe on his own and they could consider taking him off the ventilator, one of Clay’s nurses suggested the couple get some sleep at the hospital’s Ronald McDonald House. She wanted them rested when the doctors tried to wake Clay the next day.

“It was a good thing, too, because it sort of gave you permission to leave because I didn’t want to leave, ever,” Laura says.

Back at the hospital the next day, Laura and Matt had gone to the cafeteria to get something to eat when they got the call that Clay was waking up. The couple ran to his room, and friends joined them around the bed as he stirred.

Fear seized Laura as Clay looked around the room. “I don’t think he knows who we are,” she said.

Then Matt’s friend Adam spoke up. “Clay, do you see Mommy?” he asked.

“He just looked right up at me,” Laura recalls.

Over the next few days, Clay became more aware as the medication gradually wore off. He ate and watched the Disney movie Finding Nemo on TV. He was moved out of the ICU, but quarantined in another room because of the MRSA infection. Having been asleep for three days, Clay couldn’t sit still in bed. “He was like a monkey, once he sort of got his legs about him,” Laura says.

As Clay improved, Laura and Matt’s worries shifted from whether he would live to whether his brain had been damaged when he was underwater. Doctors had begun testing him slowly and there had been good signs. For one test, they asked Clay to identify a group of objects. “He called a spoon a fork and a knife a spoon or something, so they were like, he’s in the right area, but he’s mixing this up,” Laura says.

Laura and Matt were told that only time would tell whether the lack of oxygen would have residual effects. “The doctor said, ‘He knows who you are, he knows who he is. Is he going to have some learning issues in second grade? He had a traumatic brain injury. What is that going to look like, I don’t know,’ ” Laura says.

Once Clay’s MRSA infection cleared up, he was outfitted with a heart monitor and cleared to leave the hospital. Laura and Matt took their son home to Potomac.