On June 9, I shared a picture on Instagram of my youngest two children; 5-year-old Reese and 3-year-old Levi were fascinated by the prescription drop box at Walgreens. The post was nothing special, just a quick moment captured of these two similar profiles I loved so much.
My next Instagram post shared the devastating news that our cherished son had drowned on June 10 while on vacation. How could our lives change, our hearts break completely, in the short time span between these two Instagram posts?
My husband and I have traveled with the same group of friends — six families in all — to the same house in Fort Morgan, AL, for the last seven years. Our families became friends 11 years ago, and now that we live in six different states, this beach vacation is one of our favorite weeks of the year.
Since I took water safety seriously, Levi wore his life jacket all day on June 10. In the final pictures I have of him, he is wearing his life jacket while playing in the ocean with friends, while eating M&Ms on the beach, while flying a kite with his daddy. I KNEW about water safety, about constant supervision of my children when they were swimming.
Well, I thought I knew about water safety, but I was wrong.
Later that afternoon, I gave Levi a bath and put on his bright yellow crab-hunting shirt. Each year, the dads took the kids on a crab-hunting trip, complete with matching, custom shirts. Levi told me numerous times that day: “Mama! Daddy is taking me crab-hunting, SOOOON!”
We waited for it to get dark that evening, cleaning up while the kids watched TV. I saw a plate of brownies, grabbed a small one, and split it with Levi. I put the brownie half in his bowl, ruffled his hair, and grinned at his delight. This was the last moment I saw my son alive.
The next steps are ones I will relive for the rest of my life. I closed the Cheetos bag, I threw something in the trash, a friend and I talked for a few seconds about crab-hunting. It was nothing. What was I even doing? I was not drinking, I was not on my phone. How did Levi get out of heavy doors, out of a room filled with adults (including both parents) and kids? It was truly moments, seconds.
I walked out those same doors, living my last seconds with a heart that was still whole. I looked over the balcony of the second floor and into the pool below, and my heart stopped. One spot grabbed my attention: a bright spot of yellow flashing in the deep end of the pool. It was my son, on the bottom of the pool.
“But, he is on the couch. That can’t be him.”
“But, we weren’t even swimming.”
I banged on the glass, screaming, pleading, desperate. I sprinted down the spiral staircase and jumped into the water to grab my son. The other half of the brownie was still in my mouth.
The rest of the night was a blur. I watched in sheer desperation as my husband, an anesthesiologist, and his friends tried to save our baby. They are six of the most skilled physicians — they had an airway kit to fully intubate him, and they gave him epinephrine, all before the ambulance even arrived. Yet, Levi could not be saved. He was airlifted to the hospital with a faint pulse, but he never came back to us.
Going on without our son, without our daughters’ baby brother, felt impossible. We were stumbling but tried to stay standing, to keep moving forward. One week after we lost him, my husband discovered the statistics on drowning on the CDC website. When he shared them with me, our hearts broke all over again.
- Drowning is the leading cause of death in ages 1-4.
- It is the second leading cause of death in ages 1-14.
- Here was the kicker: 69% of children who drown do so during NON-SWIM times.
Someone had compiled this data — it was OUT THERE. Yet, why did we not know? My mind was reeling over these statistics, over my grief, over my anger at not knowing the real truth about drowning. Despite my overwhelming sadness, I knew I had to DO something NOW. Every single day since June 10, I have read more news stories about new children who have drowned. It is heart wrenching to truly KNOW the suffering of these families.
So I had an idea to help spread awareness. I kept thinking about how often my husband and I had been distracted by our children when on vacation or around water. One of us would casually ask the other, “Can you watch them for a minute?” I knew it wasn’t enough; for supervision to be effective, it had to be BETTER than that.
I fueled all of my emotions into creating a nonprofit called Levi’s Legacy. Drowning prevention requires layers — fences, alarms, survival swim lessons. But, constant supervision is vital. Levi’s Legacy raises awareness about drowning and emphasizes the importance of constant supervision. The “Water Guardian” tags are the size of a credit card and serve as a tangible reminder to the person wearing it that they must supervise at ALL times when there is access to water. The tags sell for $10 (including shipping) and are never a fundraiser. Each one comes with a coil bracelet and a lanyard. They can be personalized with a photo or with text (i.e. “I am Lily’s Guardian”).
I have two goals for the tags: the first one is to have parents and caretakers designate a Water Guardian anytime children have access to water (even when NOT swimming). The second purpose is to have them hanging in vacation homes where there is water access. I have heard countless stories like mine where a child drowned while on vacation. Since a beach or lake house typically means a break from the normal routine, that means parents let down their guard, subconsciously assume that with so many adults around, their children will be safe. I sure wish I had seen a Water Guardian tag or one of the Levi’s Legacy magnets the morning of June 10. Vacation homes always display information about pizza delivery and garbage collections. I would love to see drowning statistics shared with as much priority as the Pizza Hut brochure.
Water is part of our national culture. We teach children that water is fun but do not emphasize that it is also deadly. Some of our children’s happiest memories are spent in the bathtub, in small inflatable pools in the backyard, at 4th of July swim parties. Yet, water can take your baby from you in seconds. Enjoy the water, create memories. But, please, please remember and spread the REAL TRUTH about drowning. If your children have access to ANY water, from a bucket in the backyard, to the ocean, be AWARE. Take water safety seriously. Dump out water when it isn’t in use, install the SELF-CLOSING fence, put in door and pool alarms, sign up for swim lessons, and supervise constantly (NOT just when swimming).
Can we talk about the real truth about drowning as often as we talk about screen time and bullying? I am not asking you to advocate for water safety for me or for Levi. I am asking you to advocate so that drowning prevention awareness becomes ingrained into our national culture. Together, we can watch the statistics fall. You will never know how this will impact your own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, students.
Before June 10, my Instagram was filled with posts of a mom with three kids. There are pictures of my children playing together, snuggling, fighting, laughing, tantrumming. I will never have new photos of Levi to share. I wish I had known the real truth about the silent, ruthless killer of drowning before I had to learn the worst way possible.
About the Author
After her son Levi’s death on June 11, 2018, Nicole Hughes made it her mission to spread awareness surrounding water safety. Water Guardians: Levi’s Legacy informs people that drowning accidents occur in non-swimming situations. Since death from drowning can happen in seconds, it is vital to have a tangible reminder of who is designated “Water-Guardian,” even when small children are not swimming but have access to water. Click here to place your order for a “Water Guardian” tag.