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Mom's best efforts just not enough

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July 25, 2001

It took everything Jessica Gomez-Garza had to keep up with her wily 2-year-old twins, Alex and Adam.

"They'd always take off running in opposite directions," said the former Mesa resident, who now lives in Phoenix.

But one May morning six years ago, both were irresistibly drawn to the same fascinating attraction looming in their back yard - the family's swimming pool in Mesa.

Anticipating a possible hazard, Gomez-Garza already had reinforced the screened-in porch that led from the house to the pool with sheets of plywood, a heavier wooden door and two sets of locks. She barricaded the door with a heavy table.

But now she knows her layers of protection were no match for determined little tots in search of adventure and she hopes to warn other parents to be wary as summer's pool season approaches.

Last year broke all drowning records for children ages 12 and younger, and this year promises the same. Already, there have been 24 water-related incidents in Maricopa County and of those five were fatalities.

Druann Letter's son, Weston, drowned. To help deal with the grief, she co-founded Water Watchers, which educates the public on water safety.

"While I was in the bathroom," Gomez-Garza recalled, "somehow they got the door unlocked and I found them both floating in the pool. I didn't know who to give CPR to first."

As she alternated between the two, a neighbor heard Jessica screaming and she telephoned for help.

But when Gomez-Garza saw a frustrated Mesa firefighter slam his fist into the wall of her house, she suspected all hope was lost.

Airlifted to a central Phoenix hospital, Alex was pronounced dead on arrival while Adam was revived en route.

But doctors could not bring all of Adam back after complications occurred three hours into his hospital stay.

"At first, Adam was talking and calling for our dog, Heidi, and he wanted a cookie," his mother remembered. "And then he had a kind of stroke."

Now, Adam, who lives at home and attends Upward Foundation, a Phoenix school for children with special needs, no longer speaks. He is visually impaired and navigates with the help of a wheelchair.

"I feel like God took away both my boys that I knew, and then he gave me this new boy," said Gomez-Garza, who was married at the time of the incident but now is a single mother.

"I did everything I could," she said. "But as they say, it just takes a minute."

And it's minutes that count, according to Deputy Chief Bob Khan of the Phoenix Fire Department. He is still reeling after last year's record number of children who nearly drowned and those who ultimately did.

"Just in Phoenix alone for 2000, we had 70 total incidents involving children and 13 of those resulted in deaths," Khan said. "It was our worst year in a decade."

Counting all of Maricopa County, there were 136 youthful incidents, 27 ending in death.

Khan said the typical victim is a 2-year-old boy who surprises his parents with his physical dexterity.

"I can't tell you the number of parents who would tell me that just yesterday the child wasn't able to use their hands to turn the knob on the door and get out to the pool," he said.

But there's one thing Khan knows for certain. "The parent who uses CPR can save a child's life even if they've been in the water an extended period of time like five minutes," he said. "Our response time is 4+ minutes, so by the time we get there the window of opportunity to save that child is almost gone."

Paul Lui, a pediatrician in the intensive care unit of Phoenix Children's Hospital who deals regularly with near drowning victims, said, "A child's natural instinct when they fall into water is to hold their breath."

"They don't actually start taking water in their lungs right away because their vocal chords spasm down so that no water can pass into the lungs," Lui said.

As the child struggles, eventually they use up the oxygen that is stored in their lungs and then they pass out due to a lack of oxygen going to the brain.

"But the heart will continue to beat for several minutes because these young hearts are still in excellent shape," Lui said. "And when no more blood is being pumped through the body with no oxygen in it, the brain begins to deteriorate."

That's when the vocal chords begin to relax and water enters the lungs.

"We estimate that happens after being in the water about 10 minutes or more," he said.

Even if the heart can be restarted after 15 to 20 minutes, brain damage can occur because of the lack of oxygen.

"That's why we say CPR at the scene is so critical," he said. "Parents need to have layers of protection and a phone by the pool and then know CPR."

Helping remind parents of the high risk of drowning as summer approaches is Druann Letter, who also lost a son to a backyard swimming pool.

"My husband is a fireman and I am a teacher and we are the safest parents in the world," the Gilbert resident said. "I've even had another parent tell me that I was so over-protective that my kids would never be normal."

But her nearly 4-year-old son, Weston, who never wandered near their fenced pool and was able to swim, still drowned three years ago.

To help deal with her grief, Druann co-founded Water Watchers, a non-profit organization bent on educating the public about water safety issues. Today, she is hosting Water Watchers' second annual Water Safety Day at Mesa Community College from 10a.m. to 3 p.m.

"We still beat ourselves up trying to figure out what happened that day," said Druann, drowning prevention and awareness coordinator for Phoenix Children's Hospital.

She can't stress enough the close supervision of children around water.

"The death of a child is like a great big ball that continues to roll downhill," she said. "You don't ever get over it. You just try to deal with it."

Reach the reporter at linda.helser@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8243.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic
©Copyright 2001 Arizona Republic

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