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NEAR-DROWNINGS' IMPACT CLEAR TO SEE
WATER SAFETY MESSAGE IN VICTIMS' STORIES

April 21, 1999

Angela Calanche Picture
Near-drowning victim Angela Calanche, 17, attends
the kickoff of the "Just A Few Seconds" campaign,
which reminds adults to watch children around water.

Angela Calanche should be shopping for a prom dress, looking for a summer job and rejoicing she won't have to take the AIMS test to graduate high school.

Instead, the Phoenix teenager spends her days staring at the ceiling, unable to move her severely atrophied limbs and choking on secretions that must be sucked from her lungs six times a day, seven days a week.

A ventilator helps her breathe, a feeding tube in her stomach provides nourishment, and her clothes and diapers are changed several times a day.

Twelve years after nearly drowning in a pool, Angela's days are numbered, one of her caregivers believes, and perhaps mercifully so.

"Most of the time, parents forget these children," said Jan Faust, a respiratory therapist at Hacienda de Los Angeles, a Phoenix care facility for brain-damaged people. "They feel like they are already dead. It's so sad because we don't know what these babies are thinking. They can't tell us."

On Tuesday, Angela and 15-year-old Tara Axsom, the center's other near-drowning patient, attended a news conference of the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Central Arizona to launch the Valley's water safety campaign, now in its 10th year.

To the coalition's credit, many Valley communities have adopted pool barrier laws, and the number of 911 calls involving children 4 and younger in swimming pools has dropped dramatically in Maricopa County. In 1988, 102 such life-threatening cases were reported to the state Department of Health Services, which last year recorded only 44.

Hoping to make the statistic hit home, coalition members filled an inflatable tot pool with 44 pairs of sandals, sneakers and baby shoes, including a size 1 white patent leather with Winnie-the-Pooh on the toes.

"If that doesn't make you think about this issue, you probably aren't reachable," said Division Chief Bob Khan of the Phoenix Fire Department.

Reaching people - newcomers to the Valley, grandparents who baby-sit and those for whom the "Just a Few Seconds" campaign has lost its zip - isn't easy.

Tempe firefighters hope to reach an estimated 65,666 households in their city with this message: Children around water - in swimming pools, spas, kiddie pools, buckets, toilets or even large dog bowls - must be watched by adults every second.

The campaign is in support of Tempe firefighter Tom Letter, whose 3-year-old son, Weston, drowned last May in the swimming pool of the family's Gilbert home. Letter was in the back yard working on his car at the time.

"Maybe Weston was playing with our dog and fell in," Tom Letter wrote in water safety brochures being delivered to Tempe residents. "Maybe he just got curious. We don't know, and Weston will never be able to tell us."

Firefighters started going door to door in March, handing out brochures, coloring books and stickers, and plan to hit neighborhood streets each Saturday until every Tempe home is visited.

"It never really hits home until something like this happens to you, and then it's, 'Hey, we've got to do better,' " said Rich Woerth, president of the Tempe Firefighters Association, which organized and is funding the drive.

Despite all the education and legislation, more needs to be done, hospital and fire officials said Tuesday.

"It's completely preventable - that's what makes it such a tragedy," said Bill Timmons, CEO of Hacienda de Los Angeles. "Once it happens, if the child dies or is damaged, there's a permanence, whether a child is forever damaged or forever dead. The family is torn apart by the event.

"And then there's the cost to the taxpayers," he added.

Angela and Tara's care, including feeding, changing, bathing, dressing, nurturing and medical attention, costs more than $600 a day, or $219,000 a year, Timmons said.

Susan Rich, a respiratory therapist at Hacienda de Los Angeles for four years, said many children whose brains were deprived of oxygen during water-related incidents are better off dead.

"Maybe it's selfish, but I don't know if I could survive the guilt and trauma," said Rich, a mother of four. "It's so hard because you are always, 'If only, if only . . .' "

Fourteen years ago, a 1-year-old Tara was clinging to her mother's leg one moment and facedown in a pool the next. Her mother now lives out of state, but writes letters and calls occasionally to inquire about the girl.

"You wouldn't let your child play outside if there was a fire next door, or if there was as big hole in your yard," Rich said. "You can't leave them unattended by water because it only takes a second." Color photo by Mona Reeder/The Arizona Republic Near-drowning victim Angela Calanche, 17, attends the kickoff of the "Just a Few Seconds" campaign, which reminds adults to watch children around water.

Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
Written By: Janie Magruder
©Copyright 1999 Arizona Republic

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