The silent killer: How a near drowning impacted two families

Cooper Whitfield

No one heard 4-year-old Cooper struggle, splash, or cry for help. That’s because he didn’t.

A year ago last June, Cooper’s mom, Christie Whitfield, took Cooper and his two siblings, Molly and Kendall who were 7 and 1 at the time, to a private neighborhood pool. What began as a joy-filled, sun-soaked afternoon nearly ended in tragedy.

The hot weather drew dozens to the pool. The chairs near the shallow end of the pool were taken, so Whitfield found a seat near the deep end where she could apply sunscreen on Kendall.

Meanwhile, her oldest, Molly, jumped into the pool with a family friend. Whitfield put goggles on her son and told Cooper, who didn’t know how to swim but could touch the 3-foot section of the pool, to wait for her by the stairs of the shallow end until she could join him.

“Buddy, wait for me by the steps,” she said.

Moments later, Whitfield turned around. Cooper was nowhere to be found.

“Where’s Cooper?” she shouted.

That’s when she saw him at the bottom of the pool. Maternal instincts kicking in, she jumped into the water and screamed to others to call 911. She pulled Cooper, blue and unconscious, out of the pool.

The following moments zoomed by in a blur.

“I just kept thinking, ‘Somebody please save my baby,’” she said. “It was an out-of-body experience, but I still kept thinking and believing he was going to be okay and that this wasn’t going to be the end.”

Whitfield was trained and had been certified in CPR. But in those moments, she couldn’t comprehend what to do, she said.

Leah Mickschl and Cooper Whitfield

Leah Mickschl did.

Mickschl, a mom of two and an RN at Midwest Children’s Resource Center, started performing CPR on Cooper. It took three rounds before he regained consciousness, she said.

“I think about it all the time,” Mickschl said.

Surveillance later showed that Cooper had jumped into the water and tried to reach a raft but missed it. He didn’t splash or gasp. Silently, he fell to the bottom of the pool. A pool that was full of adults and children who thought Cooper was just swimming underwater.

Within minutes of the rescue, police and emergency responders arrived. Mickschl stayed behind with Whitfield’s other two children so she could accompany him in an ambulance to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he was treated in the Emergency Department. While he was still in shock and remained quiet, he was breathing normally.

Cooper remained at Children’s overnight for observation so physicians could make sure there was no brain or lung damage. Today, he’s a healthy, happy 5-year-old who has returned to the water.

In a situation like a near drowning, every second counts. Police told Whitfield had it not been for Mickschl’s quick intervention, Cooper may have suffered brain damage.

“Leah is an absolute hero,” Whitfield said. “I can’t say enough about her and how calmly and quickly she handled the situation.”

Mickschl, who grew up around water, said the event has made her more aware of her surroundings when she is by water and when her two kids, 8 and 10, are in water.

She added that what happened to Whitfield could happen to anyone.

“It was an awful day that has changed my life – I look at everything differently now,” Whitfield said. “I have an appreciation for so much. Life is so precious and can change in the blink of an eye.”

The Whitfield Family

Whitfield and Mickschl share their tips for parents and caregivers:

  • Inches count. While Cooper was able to touch the bottom of the pool in the 3-foot section, he nearly drowned where the depth was only 3-and-a-half feet.
  • Always be aware and always be present. If you have to step away, ask someone to watch your child.
  • Register your child for swimming lessons.
  • Get CPR certified.
  • Always use a lifejacket. Cooper typically wore one at the pool, but it got left behind.
  • Drowning is a leading cause of death in kids ages 1 to 4. Boys are at a higher risk for drowning.
  • Drowning is silent.

Find more water safety tips here.

Read our original story about the rescue and the honor Mickschl received for her efforts.

Join Christie, Leah and our trauma team when they hand out life jackets at local parks on Wednesday, July 10.

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