Pool safety: the difference between life and death

In just a few short weeks, five people, including two small children, have drowned in metro Atlanta. Five.

Suzanne Kelly knows the number like the fingers on her hands because each time she heard recent news reports, her heart sank.

"I ache for those people," the Dacula mother of two said recently.

She is reminded of what could have been.

Last summer, just as the weather turned hot, Kelly's own daughter nearly drowned while swimming in their neighborhood pool with friends. Ava Kelly was just 7 then, that age, experts say, when both fatal and near-fatal drownings seem to rise.

Ava was lucky.

"There were so many heroes there that day, including her 4-year-old swim mate, Morgan," Kelly said. "Thank God he saw her and had the sense to go tell someone."

The recent drowning of two 5-year old girls and the near-drowning of a Gwinnett toddler early this month are tragic reminders of how dangerous playing in or near water can be, especially for children.

Sabir Muhammad, a former world class swimmer and author of "Born to Swim," gets a Google alert every time a story is written about a drowning.

"It's always really sad to hear these stories but it brings a bit more urgency to what I've been doing the last 10 years — finding ways to facilitate swimming education for children," he said.

Muhammad, who recently launched his own swimming school, has made it his mission to teach children — and African-American children in particular — to swim. They drown three times more often than whites.

He was inspired to write "Born to Swim" shortly after six black youths drowned while trying to rescue a family member in Shreveport, La., last year. None of the youths nor their family members could swim.

While drownings have been declining for decades in the United States, they remain the second-leading cause of injury-related deaths, after motor vehicle accidents, among children of all ages.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2005 to 2009, an average of 3,880 people - more than 10 a day - died yearly by drowning. An estimated 5,789 people were treated in emergency rooms each year for near-fatal drowning.

In the eight-county metro Atlanta area, including Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett, there were 51 drowning fatalities between 2005-2008 in children 18 and younger. There were 15 in 2010.

In an overwhelming majority of cases, these tragedies were preventable if youngsters and their guardians had greater respect for the water and had taken well-established precautions, said Tania Diaz, coordinator of the non-profit organization Safe Kids Gwinnett.

What's worse, Diaz said, is that in 90 percent of cases, parents who say they were watching their children acknowledge that they engaged in other distracting activities at the same time, including talking, reading or taking care of another child.

"A child can get into trouble in a matter of seconds," she said. "This is why it is so important that adults actively supervise kids when they are in or near water at all times."

Megan Popielarczyk, a spokesperson for Safe Kids Georgia, said even a near-drowning incident can have lifelong consequences.

Kids who survive a near-drowning may experience brain damage that can cause memory problems, learning disabilities or permanent loss of basic functions. In fact, after just four to six minutes under water, the damage is usually irreversible.

Suzanne Kelly said her story might have ended differently had it not been for little Morgan, Shelley Hannon, a cardiac nurse, and Gwinnett Fire Department Battalion Chief Rod Dawson, a former Life Flight paramedic who stabilized Ava for the ride to the hospital.

"If they had not been there, I don't believe Ava would be here today," Kelly said.

Ava experienced some cognitive issues but is now her old self again.

"We're very lucky," Kelly said. "It was like God was really watching over her."

Tips to keep kids safe

• Lock pools and spas behind a four-sided, four-foot fence with self-closing gates.

• Make sure pools and spas have compliant anti-entrapment drain covers and back-up devices.

• Be mindful that inflatable or portable pools can pose a drowning risk.

• Designate a "water watcher," a responsible adult who is not distracted by phone calls, text messages, reading or talking to others.

• Supervise children even if they know how to swim.

• Keep a phone near and use it only to call for help in an emergency.

• If a child is missing, check the water first.

• Learn how to swim.

• Never use swimming toys in place of U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets.

• Learn CPR and know how to use rescue equipment in an emergency.

• Teach children water safety rules such as never swim alone or play near pool or spa drains.

Source: Safe Kids Gwinnett at www.safekids.org/water.