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by Crystal Mendez
Water safety and drowning prevention are very important to my family. Most people would agree that water can be dangerous. Caring parents take steps to protect their child from water dangers. A mother of three active, daredevil children, I ALWAYS believed I was doing everything in my power to protect my children. Our family of five loves the outdoors. Fishing, boating, beach trips, swimming — we were always up for all things water. To be safe, we all had our own life jackets.
August 14, 2010, was a beautiful, hot summer day. We couldn’t make it out of town for our normal summer camping, however, we were determined to get wet somewhere! I ventured out with my three boys: Christopher, age 9, Nicholas, age 6 and Gabriel, who had just turned 3. We visited friends with an aboveground, 4-foot-deep pool. We spent the day enjoying the pool, playing water games and attempting to get Gabriel confident with his life jacket. Previously he would scream and shout if he was let go in water where he could not touch. For hours we worked with him to gain confidence. I remember saying over and over, “I won’t let anything happen to you. I will protect you.” He was so happy, showing me what he could do. His laughter was contagious. He would move his arms and feet so fast to try and get away.
Later, the adults got out to prepare dinner. I was sitting 15 to 20 feet away chatting with the other parents. Gabriel and four older children continued swimming in the pool. I took a picture of Gabriel to show my husband his son’s progress that day. Then I made the biggest mistake of my life, the reason I am writing this now, the reason I want to educate others on water safety. I took my eyes off my child. I was very confident that his life jacket would keep him safe. If there was a problem, I would know it, right? He would scream, or splash. I know now that’s not the case.
I noticed the older kids getting out of the pool to run off and play. I asked, “Where is Gabe?” I remember thinking he would come running from around the corner when he heard his name, but he did not. My heart froze as I looked over at the pool. There, floating on top of the water, was Gabriel’s life jacket. I ran to the pool and saw Gabriel face down at the bottom. I jumped in, pulled him out, and handed him off to my friend who started CPR right away. His wife immediately called 911. I went into a state of emotion I can’t explain with words. There are parts of that day I don’t remember. I remember seeing my two older children crying, as they watched their baby brother’s lifeless body receive mouth to mouth. I was useless. All I could do was scream. The paramedics arrived after what seemed like forever. They loaded him into the ambulance and told me there was no room for me. I remember feeling like that might be the last time I would see him. I rushed to the hospital.
A paramedic met me at the hospital and told me, “We got his heart started on the way here, but he is unresponsive.” I rushed inside, fell to the floor and started crying. I didn’t know where to go, what to do. I was so lost. I remember them asking me for his birth date and I couldn’t remember it. Eventually I was guided to the ICU where he had been admitted. After he was stabilized, my husband and I were allowed to see him. We went down the bright hallway and entered the pediatric ICU. The sound of monitors was overwhelming. I walked into room #3, and there was my baby. He was in a coma, tubes down his throat, IVs in his arm, neck brace under his chin. My little boy, who only an hour prior was laughing, splashing and having the time of his life. It was all gone. All we knew was that there would be a delay before the full damage could be assessed.
On the third day we got the results we had been dreading. Tests showed Gabriel had suffered severe brain damage. We had to make a decision whether or not to continue Gabriel’s life. The doctors said his future would be nothing — that he would be unaware of the world around him, unable to feel emotion, to understand love. He would be a vegetable. “Is that what you want for your child?” they asked. We were given the week to discuss the situation with loved ones, and to do a lot of soul searching. I always thought a decision like that regarding my child would be so easy. But it was not. I honestly didn’t know the right thing to do. If I kept him alive, would it be only for my own selfishness? After a few days of sitting in that room with my baby, watching him fight, we knew without a doubt we had to give him a chance. Gabriel was diagnosed with an anoxic brain injury. When oxygen levels are significantly low for four minutes or longer, brain cells begin to die and after five minutes permanent anoxic brain injury can occur. It was later discovered that only six or seven minutes had passed between the time the picture was sent to his father and the 911 call.
Gabriel will be developmentally and physically impaired for the rest of his life. He currently requires care 100 percent of the time. He uses a wheelchair and is unable to speak. However, Gabriel is a fighter. He is not the “vegetable” they said he would be. He smiles. He laughs. He gets excited for things that make him happy. He frowns when things upset him. He doesn’t communicate like most people, but we understand him. He is with us. For that I am grateful. However, he will NEVER live the life he should have. No parent should ever have to feel the heart-wrenching pain we experienced during this ordeal. The picture of my child, face down in that pool, will forever haunt me, and I carry the guilt that no words of support will ever erase.
We love Gabriel, and our extended family, friends, teachers and even strangers have been very supportive. But this tragedy was preventable. Please, if you are a parent or a caregiver, never underestimate how quickly a situation can become dire. Never assume that external aids like life jackets are infallible. And never, never take your eyes off a child playing in or around water.
Crystal is happily married to Robert for fifteen years; they have three sons and live in Damascus, Oregon.