Jessica Johnson, 3, didn’t have a heartbeat, and she wasn’t breathing.
Her dad had looked away for just a moment when she ran into the family pool in Flower Mound — after taking off her life jacket inside.
Jessica survived, but not before she was placed in a coma for five days. She was in physical therapy for months, and in cognitive rehabilitation for a year and a half.
Her mother, Lorie Johnson, 45, recounts her daughter’s story at classes put on in Fort Worth by the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition.
All drownings are preventable, and the best way to stop them is actively watching the water without distractions, said Sharon Evans, trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
The Johnson family had done everything right. They had a gate with locks out of their children’s reach. All the children at the pool wore Coast Guard-approved flotation devices and were taking swim lessons. An adult, Jessica’s dad, was dedicated to watching the kids in the water.
Jessica had taken off her life jacket when she went inside to use the bathroom. Her father was distracted by another child’s questions, and in that moment his daughter ran, unnoticed, from inside the house to join the other children in the pool.
Evans said, "People feel like if the child’s drowning it’s gonna be loud and thrashing and they’ll be yelling for help, kind of like what you see in the movies. When they drown it’s actually very silent, and really all they’re trying to do is get their head above water to gasp a breath."
She said 35 children have been taken to Cook Children’s Medical Center after going under since the beginning of the year — 23 of them in June. Five of those children died, three in June.
On average three to four children per year survive a near-drowning at Cook Children’s, but live with life-altering brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen, Evans said.
Mother’s CPR saved Jessica
Lorie Johnson performed CPR on her daughter for five minutes before paramedics arrived.
Jessica was breathing irregularly by the time paramedics arrived, and the little girl was taken by CareFlite to Cook Children’s.
“It didn’t look good. The CAT scan looked like she had significant brain injury,” Johnson said.
Jessica was put into a coma, and her body temperature was lowered to reduce swelling in her brain. Five days later, she woke up.
The circumstances that led to the accident aren’t unusual, Evans said. There are times when it seems natural to remove a life jacket. But taking it off too early can be a mistake.
“Often the child may have a life jacket on, and as they’re about to leave, Mom starts packing everything up so she takes that child’s life jacket off,” Evans said. “She’s busy packing the car and getting everybody together and doesn’t realize the child gets back in the pool.”
The Johnsons’ story has a happy ending. After the accident in August 2014, Jessica is ready to move into kindergarten, on time, with her twin brother in the fall.
But Misty Vento of The Colony, who also speaks at coalition classes, was seconds too late to save her son.
Toddlers were inseparable
Vento, 38, and her girlfriend took their children, six between them, to a neighborhood splash pad in Keller in August 2012.
Vento’s 4-year-old son, Xander, and her friend’s 3-year-old daughter were inseparable. The two toddlers were in a 2-foot-deep mock lazy river that ended in a slope to the 4-foot deep end of the pool.
Vento left her friend watching the little ones to get her middle child some watermelon from their cooler near the lounge chairs.
Her friend turned away for a minute to talk to one of her other children.
In that time, Xander and the girl went down the slope and were in over their heads.
“His instinct was to grab her and hold her up. When my girlfriend turned around, her daughter was kind of gasping for air with her face just barely above the water,” Misty Vento said. “Xander was holding her up until right when my friend jumped in.”
Xander passed out, and an off-duty nurse who happened to be at the pool got him out of the water and immediately started CPR.
“I just kept thinking how hot the cement was on his back and his legs,” Misty said. “They kept doing CPR, but he just kept vomiting and throwing up. Later we learned he was aspirating on his throwup and they couldn’t get air into his lungs fast enough.”
Doctors told Misty Vento they couldn’t save her son after he spent four days in intensive care. His parents donated his organs, because he saved his friend and would have wanted it that way, Vento said.
“It’s so fast you don’t have time to fix the situation,” she said. “Have one person that’s watching and doing nothing else.”
The drowning-prevention coalition, a nonprofit group, puts on water-safety classes in Fort Worth at community pools and recreational centers. Parents are required to attend and learn CPR and drowning-prevention techniques, said executive director Pam Cannell.
Besides coalition classes, community recreation centers and pools throughout Tarrant County have swimming classes for a variety of ages.
“Awareness is power,” Vento said. “Parents, don’t have a false sense of security about their kids even if they can swim. Somebody still needs to be watching.”
Dylan Bradley: 817-390-7984, @dbradley1220
How to prevent drowning:
- Maintain constant visual contact with children in a pool or pool area
- Drowning is a silent death, with no splashing to alert anyone that there is trouble.
- Have layers of protection — install alarms on doors and windows that exit to a pool area, and fence the pool with self-closing latches.
-Pam Cannell, Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition executive director
Water safety and swim classes
- The Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition Class has one class left this year, July 25-28 and Aug. 1-4. The class, $5 plus pool entry fees, is at Marine Park Pool, 303 NW 20th St., Fort Worth. Information: 817-392-6582. To register online, go to www.fwdpc.org.
- These area cities are among those that offer swim lessons at recreation centers or community pools: Arlington, Bedford, Benbrook, Euless, Flower Mound, Forest Hill, Fort Worth, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Hurst, Keller, Mansfield, North Richland Hills, Saginaw, Southlake and Trophy Club. Contact your area pool for details.