‘As if she were my own’–a mother saves a drowned child

Odette Rowan is a colleague, a Whangarei Hospital Emergency Department nurse, a Mangawhai Heads Surf Lifesaver, a mum, and someone who has helped save a child’s life by being prepared and willing to help.

This is Odette’s Story, for World Drowning Prevention Day, 25 July:

“A little over a year ago my kids and I were on a road trip from Mangawhai to the Manawatu. We stopped at a Holiday Park in Taupo, which is a favourite with the kids for its amazing resort style pool.

The following morning, the kids woke early and we headed straight to the pool. It was the Friday before school holidays and not many people were around but I noticed another set of kids in the pool just like mine – a little girl with two big brothers.

I was relaxing in the spa area with my kids when I heard screaming. I turned around and saw a man carrying a floppy blue child from the water. A woman was fixed to the spot. Screaming. The child looked dead. As I leapt out the water I yelled at my kids, “Don’t move!” I yelled at a couple sitting having breakfast to call 111. The man lay the little girl at the pool edge. I was there within 3 seconds. I knelt down next to her. She wasn’t breathing. I heard someone say, “Put her in the recovery position.” “No,” I said firmly, “she’s not breathing.” I started chest compressions. I could have been pressing on my daughter’s chest. They were the same size. They had the same blonde curls. This could not be happening. The man was kneeling at her head. “What do I do?” he asked. I was counting in my head. “Two breaths,” I said. He gave the breaths and I continued on compressions. Two more breaths. Then she coughed, vomited and cried.

Relief washed over me at that cry. The man – who I now know is her father – picked her up and cuddled her. I dashed back to my kids and yelled at them again, “Don’t move.” As I helped get the little girl’s swimsuit off to get her warm – it was a freezing Taupō morning – the reality of the situation started sinking in.

The little girl was taken to hospital, the staff washed away the vomit, and I got back in that pool with my kids – who couldn’t understand why Mummy was so shaken. “She’s alive mum,” they said. “Yes,” I said, but in my head I was thinking, “She could have died.”

I’ve been in contact with the girl’s family since that day. Her parents both thought the other parent was watching her. One of her brothers saw her on the bottom of the pool and pulled her up. He is a hero. She made a full recovery, and I am very grateful for the photos they sent me of her – happy, alive, pink.

I am so pleased that I was able to help, along with her dad – who also knew CPR. I’m a nurse in the Emergency Department at Whangarei Hospital. I had also just completed my Surf Lifeguard Award at Mangawhai Heads. My basic life support training was fresh. But I was also just some random person at a swimming pool who knew CPR.

The rest of the holiday was overshadowed by the experience, which I now think of as the best / worst day of my life. In the aftermath, I touched the grazes I got on my knees kneeling next to the little girl to remind myself it had really happened. It was surreal. CPR in my swimsuit was the last thing I expected to be doing on the first day of my holiday.

Use this winter to either learn or refresh basic life support. You might be the random person who helps to save a life.”

–Odette Rowan

Thanks to Odette for allowing me to share that story.

I hope everyone who reads this takes five minutes to educate and prepare themselves for the moment they might be asked to be a life saver — even if they aren’t already a lifeguard, a nurse, or a parent.

What can you do, right now?

Learn CPR. Classes are ideal, but if you don’t have the time, at least watch these two short and excellent videos from NZ Red Cross and Dr Tony Smith of St John NZ. Be prepared to save a life.

30 hard and fast chest compressions followed by 2 breaths. Remember, any CPR is better than doing nothing.

Just waiting for an ambulance isn’t a wise option: those 7-10 (or more) minutes of no oxygen to the brain can lead to death or devastating outcomes.

Don’t delay: with drowning, if you waste time, a person who has stopped breathing (respiratory arrest) can turn into a person whose heart has stopped (cardiac arrest).

And while a respiratory arrest can often be easily reversed with ventilations as part of CPR, if it’s allowed to turn into a cardiac arrest, a fatal outcome is much more likely. Time is of the essence. Seconds matter.

Think through it ahead of time: if your child were pulled blue and lifeless from the water, you need to step up. No delay.

Check for Dangers, quickly assess whether they are unresponsive, send for help (111 and an AED), tilt the head back (do not worry about the spine…get that airway must get opened), check if they are breathing normally, if not: 30 chest compressions, then 2 breaths. Repeat.

Lastly, my personal advice as an emergency doctor who has seen this go wrong too many times:

Don’t mistake dying gasps for effective breathing.

‘Agonal’ breaths (the occasional or weak gasps of a dying person–‘guppy breathing’, like a fish out of water) are NOT effective breathing. In the precise and life-saving words of the New Zealand Resuscitation Council:

If a person is ‘unresponsive and not breathing NORMALLY,’ begin CPR!

–Dr Gary Payinda