What Every Parent Needs to Know About Secondary Drowning

I am forever changed since this happened. I will not let this define me, but you can guarantee that I will be doing things much differently from here on out.
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Over the weekend, I experienced one of the worst things to have happened to me since becoming a mother. After the shock subsided, a thousand memories, regrets and things that I wish I had done differently that day flashed through my mind.

I tend to hesitate when it comes to sharing super-personal experiences on my blog, since I like to keep some areas of my life private, but I decided this particular event was best to share, even though it made me feel like the worst mom in the world. I felt like raising awareness about what happened might prevent something like this from happening to you.

Here is the story:

It was a pretty normal Saturday (or so I thought). We woke up early, Ian and I made coffee and we had our weekend family tradition of scrambled eggs. We played in the backyard and then Ronin and I headed off to Target to pick up the usual necessities. On our way home I ran over a nail and got a flat tire. Major bummer. Two hours later, we finally got the spare on. At this point, it was 2:30 in the afternoon and we were supposed to be at my niece's birthday party at 3. Somehow, I made it home in time to shower, get the kids' swim trunks on and get them all sunscreened up. We made it to the party at 3:30. It was a pool party, so all the cousins were in the pool, jumping around, splashing and having a great time. All the adults were also all outside sitting around and enjoying the nice weather. I was watching Ronin, who was sitting on the big step in the spa, where he had basically stayed put since entering the pool area.

Here is where everything went all wrong... I was sitting right on the edge of the outside of the spa, just a few inches from where Ronin was playing. I shifted my sitting position to talk to my sister-in-law. I turned around for maybe five seconds, tops. I turned back around to take a peek at Ronin and he was not on the step. Mom panic and fear kicked into overdrive. I frantically scanned the spa and saw him being whirled by the jets to the other end of the spa, where his little head was bobbing up and down trying desperately to get air. I pulled him out as fast as I possibly could. The whole ordeal lasted around 20 seconds from when he fell into the water until when I got him out. Other than Ronin being visibly upset and coughing to get the water out, he seemed totally fine after he had calmed down. I am the most over-the-top, over-paranoid mom ever and I was so mad at myself that this happened literally inches away from me! He did seem more tired than usual after it happened, but I figured he was exhausted from what just occurred combined with all the heat and exercise he had had for the last few hours. We left the party soon after.

At home, Ronin just didn't seem like himself. I could have just chalked it up to him being overly tired, but I felt in my gut that it was something else. He also started doing this weird cough that made him tense up every time he exerted the effort. I wondered if maybe he was still just trying to cough up any water from earlier. I called my pediatrician and left her a brief message explaining what had happened and what his symptoms were at the moment. A few minutes later (that was quick, I thought as I answered the phone), she called me back.

Now, Ronin's pediatrician is usually pretty calm. And most of the time when I phone her for an "emergency," she says everything is going to be fine and gives me a list of symptoms to watch for and tells me if my kids get worse, bring them in to be seen. This time was different. She was stern and said I needed to take Ronin to the ER NOW because he could be experiencing scary after-effects of his near-drowning incident (secondary drowning). You can read more about what that is here. I hung up and we all rushed to the ER. The nurses immediately brought us back. Within moments, the doctor was in. He got my story again and in a scolding tone asked me why I didn't bring him in sooner. I told him that right after it happened he seemed totally fine. I told him he was breathing normally and gave no signs that he was in distress. He did not like my answer and knowing what I do know now, I don't blame him. They took Ronin's temp and it was 101. So weird, since he was definitely not sick that day.

The doctor ordered an immediate chest X-ray along with a whole list of blood tests. At this point in the evening, Ronin was acting limp and almost unresponsive. Once the results were in, the doctor came in with the update. His facial expression warned me that he was not going to give good news. He said Ronin's blood work came back normal (that's good, I thought!) but... the chest X-rays were not good. He said his lungs aspirated. Consequences of this range from no injury at all to chemical pneumonitis (from the chemicals in the spa) to death within minutes from asphyxiation. He said at this point it was very serious and he needed to be sent via ambulance immediately down to Children's Hospital in San Diego to see a pediatric specialist. He said all the arrangements had already been made and the doctors and team of nurses were waiting for him. My heart crushed into a million little pieces at that moment. I felt like it was literally getting ripped out of my chest. This was my fault, no matter how many times people were telling me it was an accident and it could have happened to anyone.

On the ambulance ride down to Children's Hospital, Ronin's oxygen levels started dropping. I watched as the little screen in front of him went from 98 percent to 92 percent to 89 percent to 74 percent. The team on board scrambled to attach an oxygen mask over his little face. I panicked! They tried to keep me calm and told me he was OK, but I have never felt so helpless in my life. When we arrived at Children's Hospital, a pediatric specialist along with four nurses were waiting for us. They brought us to our room, where there was an X-ray technician waiting. They did another chest X-ray and more blood work. They told me at "this point" we just had to monitor Ronin and wait. Wait for what?! They hooked him up to all kinds of machines and we waited... all night long while Ian and I watched him sleep. On Sunday, the sweetest doctor came in and talked to us. She told me that this freak accident caused by the aftermath of a near-drowning incident happens more than I might think. She said we did the right thing by bringing Ronin in and that many times it goes terribly wrong (such as parents putting their kids down to sleep and never seeing them wake up again) because parents think that their kids are fine if they start breathing normally again after a near-drowning event. She also told us that there were two other little boys on the same floor as Ronin who were also there for the same exact thing!

She said she was very pleased because the latest X-ray had shown that the water trapped in his lungs was beginning to clear significantly. The not-so-good news was that he had chemical pneumonitis due to the chemicals from the spa getting trapped in his lungs. His lungs were irritated and inflamed, but she told us that things were looking better despite the diagnosis. At this point she said the staff will monitor him a little longer making sure a fever or other lung complications do not arise.

Ronin woke up around 10 a.m. on Sunday. What I mean is for the first time since the incident he woke up beyond pissed off that he had all these little tubes on him, an IV in his arm and a heartbeat monitor wrapped tightly around his big toe. I have never in my life been more happy to see such a grouchy little man! He was back and acting like his normal Ronin self. The nurses came in because they heard him making such a commotion. This was a great sign.

Later that day we got the news that Ronin was officially in the clear and was able to get discharged and go home. Praise God.

I am forever changed since this happened. I will not let this define me, but you can guarantee that I will be doing things much differently from here on out. It was a huge wake-up call. And it really taught me that yes, in just a few seconds your life can change forever. I got a too-close taste of what that really can be like.

Before Saturday I had never heard of secondary drowning. If I had heard of it before, I would have done things differently. I would have brought him in the moment I noticed a change in his behavior, even if it was just me being overly paranoid or thinking he was just exhausted from the day's activities.

What you need to know:

Secondary drowning can be difficult to recognize since the victim appears to be OK right after a near-drowning event. Your child may breathe in a very small amount of water and seem like he or she has successfully expelled it through coughing. In secondary drowning, the water may fill up some of the oxygen-rich pores of the lungs, which reduces the ability to oxygenate blood as it passes through. The heart does not slow down significantly with this process, but rather very, very slowly, so your child will still be able to talk and walk. The only symptoms may be a sudden change in personality or level of awareness (just like Ronin experienced) as the blood oxygen level drops over time.

So if your child has experienced a near-drowning experience, watch for a sudden change of personality or energy level. You can save your child's life if you act quickly and get them medical treatment immediately.

I hope this brings awareness to all who read this. I am so thankful that Ronin is OK and that I decided to not put him to bed that night thinking everything was fine. I have said many, many thank-you prayers over the past few days for that. I want to make sure this never happens to another child, so pass this on and please share with those who you think might need to know.


This video has nothing to do with this post other than the fact that I must have watched it at least a hundred times over the past weekend while we waited. And I love how Ronin gives me the "Mom you are so over the top and it's annoying" look at the end.

This post originally appeared on Delighted Momma.

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