Nicole Hughes was no slacker when it came to water safety. Her two older daughters had private swimming lessons as soon as they turned three. She made her youngest child, three-year-old Levi, wear a life jacket everywhere since he didn’t quite seem ready for classes. She knew they needed supervision in the pool at all times. But on June 10, it wasn’t enough.
The Tennessee-based family was on their annual beach vacation with five other families in Fort Morgan, Alabama. After dinner, when the kids were all bathed, changed and watching TV in the living room, Hughes was cleaning up in the kitchen before they headed back out to the beach to hunt for crabs. She took her eyes off the kids to close a bag of Cheetos. When she looked again, Levi was gone. He had somehow slipped outside and down the stairs to the gated pool. They found him face down in the water.
“My initial thought when I saw him in the water was, ‘That can’t be him, because he’s on the couch. All my friends thought that,” Hughes tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Based on where he was in the pool, she thinks he was reaching for a toy, but she will never know. It was a house full of doctors — Levi’s father Jonathan had met the other husbands during his residency — but none of their efforts to revive him worked. Levi was declared dead by 4 am on Monday, July 11.
“By that Monday afternoon I already had the idea in my head,” Hughes says. The idea was a way to help make sure that in any home near water, there would always be an adult with an eye on the kids. “I kept thinking, literally, ‘Tag, you’re it. I’m tagging you in; it’s your turn.’ ”
Within a week, after planning her son’s funeral, Hughes was taking action, calling around to identity card makers to see how she could make those literal tags that say “I am the Water Guardian,” to hang around the neck of an attentive adult. The point is to have a physical reminder not to try to multitask while you’re in charge. And if anyone else sees you looking at your phone or leaving the room to do something, they can remind you too.
When she reached someone at InstantCard.net, not only did he agree to help her out, he gave her the email address of his friend, BJ Fisher, director of Health and Safety for the American Lifeguard Association.
“[BJ] emailed me back that night and said, ‘We truly believe this idea will save lives and are happy to endorse it,'” Hughes says.
So, while still mourning her son and raising daughter Lily, nine, and Reese, five, she has created the nonprofit Levi’s Legacy. The Water Guardian cards, which can be worn on a lanyard or a coiled bracelet, remind the wearer, “Constant supervision is the most effective way to prevent drowning.” In addition to watching small children while swimming, it suggests using the tag any time they have access to water, “even when not swimming (i.e., unloading the car, preparing dinner, etc….).”
The tags cost $10 to cover the cost of production and shipping, though there is also a link for anyone who cannot afford to pay for them. There’s also the option to customize them with a photo, text, and logos.
Hughes’ efforts come at a time when drowning deaths are on the rise. On Sunday, New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer called attention to the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of boys 4 years old and younger who died from drowning rose from 270 in 2014 to 306 in 2016 (13 percent) and the number of girls of the same age rose from 147 to 157. Almost twice as many boys die from drowning as girls, and it is the leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4, aside from congenital disorders.
“The CDC should be commended for keeping these detailed records, but what good is the data unless we use it to save lives?” the Senator said in a statement urging the government agency to analyze the numbers further and do more outreach to parents.
Hughes, meanwhile, wonders why the American Academy of Pediatrics isn’t doing more to inform parents about how quickly a drowning can happen.
“When I took Levi to his well child visit in April, I had to answer questions like, ‘Can he hold a cup?’ ‘Can he scribble with a crayon?’ ” she says. “I sure would have liked the chance to know what I was up against [in drowning danger], instead of my brain being full of information about screen time and organic fruits and vegetables.”
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Pool Safely campaign has been working to spread the word about drowning prevention. Its tips include:
1. Never leave a child unattended in or near water.
2. Teach children how to swim.
3. Teach children to stay away from drains.
4. Ensure all pools and spas – both in your backyard and any public pool you may visit – have compliant drain covers.
5. Install proper barriers, covers, and alarms on and around your pool and spa.
6. Know how to perform CPR on children and adults.
In addition to working with pediatricians, Hughes wants to get Water Guardian cards to more vacation homes, where she thinks just having them around will remind people to be more vigilant.
While she doesn’t have exact numbers, Hughes estimates that she’s gotten more than 1,000 orders for tags since she did her first newspaper interview about her efforts, less than a month after Levi’s death.
“I was just sitting there crying watching those orders coming in,” she says. “I thought this is the absolute best and the absolute worst of the human experience.”
Reading this, one might ask how Hughes has managed to do so much after losing her son. It hasn’t been easy, she admits.
“There are no little boy Paw Patrol pajamas in my laundry,” she says. “There are so many times when I would have put it off; I would have said, ‘I can’t do this right now.’ … But every single day, I see more stories. I keep thinking, ‘I can’t wait another day.’ There’s no way I can not do this. I have to do this right now. It is summer.”
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