“My family and I were at a friend’s condominium for a barbecue party on Christmas Eve, so we were all looking forward to the food and festive cheer. As I was helping to barbecue food at the pit, I soon lost track of both my daughters’ whereabouts as they’d wandered off to play with the other kids. Although I had spotted the swimming pool, it was some distance away and didn’t think that my kids would wander so far.
Over an hour into the party, I took a break and decided to look for my daughters at a partitioned area not far off. On approaching the spot, I could hear kids wailing and squealing away. What happened next was horrible. Although my older daughter was happily playing with a friend, my younger daughter, Janelle, then 18 months old, was floating lifelessly in a small pool behind the partition. I jumped into the pool immediately, grabbed my daughter and passed her to my husband.
Janelle had lost consciousness — she had pale lips, while her body was cold and stiff. Only one thought went through my mind in that moment — I had lost my daughter. My still-calm husband kept on patting Janelle’s back until a white liquid oozed out of her mouth. While we were trying to keep our baby conscious, our friends called for an ambulance.
After what seemed like eternity, the ambulance arrived and took Janelle to the National University Hospital. The doctors warded her in an isolation ward immediately as she was running a fever. I stayed with Janelle throughout her hospitalisation. During that time in isolation, there were countless moments when images and news reports of children who had drowned would come to my mind. I was still in disbelief that this could happen to my own child.
During Janelle’s hospital stay, doctors scanned her organs to ensure that no residual water remained in her organs and brain. Fortunately, Janelle’s results were good, even though she was diagnosed with secondary drowning. The doctors told us that Janelle was very fortunate as her lungs are strong. Most 18-month-old children who have been submerged in water for 10 to 15 minutes would have drowned as water enters children’s lungs very easily.
However, memories of the incident still haunt Janelle till this day. Her sleep is punctuated with nightmares and she has panic attacks. Doctors have advised us to send Janelle for psychological counselling, which we are in the midst of arranging. She has also developed a phobia of swimming pools and sticks close to us when she walks past them.
I now understand how critical it is for children to develop water confidence and swimming skills and I plan to enrol both Janelle and Jaime in swimming classes. My advice to parents is to always survey the surrounding area when they bring their children to a new environment and be on the lookout for any danger zones such as swimming pools, heights or fire hazards. They should also consider equipping their children with survival skills such as an ability to swim, while teaching them to report any emergencies as soon as possible.
I am glad that Janelle is back in the pink of health after such a traumatic experience. My husband and I now keep an even closer watch on our daughters, especially in new environments. We are also more vigilant of any potential hazards.”
Joyce Oh, 33, lives in Punggol with her husband, Tan Weixiang, 33, and daughters, Janelle, 2, and Jaime, 4.
Secondary drowning — the facts
Dr Goh E Shaun, an emergency medicine specialist at Raffles 24 Hour Emergency, has the lowdown on secondary drowning.
What is secondary drowning?
Secondary drowning, also known as dry drowning, takes place several hours after a near-drowning event has taken place. The child may inhale a small amount of water as she struggles in the water, which irritates the internal lining of the airways in the lungs. This causes inflammation within the lungs, resulting in a condition known as pulmonary oedema, where inflammatory fluid gets secreted in the lung’s airspaces. This gives rise to a poor gas exchange in the lungs resulting in a lack of oxygen in the blood, and subsequently, to vital organs such as the brain and heart. Eventually, this may lead to cardiac arrest, which is very similar to what happens in drowning, except that it may occur several hours after the near-drowning event.
Who is vulnerable to it?
Usually, a person who can’t swim panics when she is under water, which causes her lungs to take in water. As children’s lungs are much smaller than adults, taking in a small amount of water can affect a large area of the lungs, as compared to the same amount of water in an adult.
What should adults do when a child nearly drowns?
If you spot a child struggling in water, shout for help. Next, bring her out of the water to safety, then lie her flat on the ground. If she wants to vomit, roll her to the side to allow her to do so, or else, expel the water she has inhaled. Determine if the child is breathing by looking and feeling for breath. If the child is not breathing or has difficulty doing so, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Get someone else to call 995 for an ambulance. If you are alone with the child, call 995 first, then continue with CPR until help arrives.
If the child is conscious, check if she has trouble breathing. If there is obvious distress such as choking, an inability to cry or she is losing consciousness, call for an ambulance immediately. If you are trained in first aid, use the backslap technique or the Heimlich manoeuvre to try and expel water or vomit that may be causing the breathing difficulty.
If the child seems well following the incident, observe her closely for the next 24 to 48 hours as this is when secondary drowning usually takes place. Signs to look out for are an obvious change in your child’s behaviour, a poor appetite, refusal to play, or listlessness. Other signs include irritability or a sudden difficulty in breathing. In such cases, it is important to take the child to the nearest emergency department for an assessment. Again, if the child starts to lose consciousness or has difficulty breathing, call 995 immediately.
This story was first published in the February 2016 issue of Mother & Baby Singapore.
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