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The Sad Truth About Drowning

Kid sitting next to pool

George Doyle/Getty Images

Colin Holst was an adventurous, fun-loving little boy who had always been cautious around water. When the 4-year-old completed swimming lessons on June 12, 2008, his confidence soared. His father, Jeff, took a picture of his proud son wearing his swim goggles and beaming. Colin said it was ?the best day ever!? The next day, his mom, Jana, took him and his 6-year-old sister to join two other families at a popular community pool.

Colin and the other children played and splashed in the fountains and sprinklers in the shallow end of the pool?under the supervision of several parents and lifeguards. Before his last trip into the water that day, Colin gave Jana a kiss and went to play under a mushroom waterfall. Then within a few minutes, he was out of sight. It?s difficult for his parents to describe the events of that day, but Jana remembers frantically scanning the pool, searching for him. Moments later he was pulled from the shallow water by another swimmer, lifeless. CPR performed at the poolside could not bring him back.

Colin?s story touched everyone in his hometown of Austin. But I had a particularly heavy heart because I was Colin?s pediatrician. I met Colin on the day he was born and knew his family well. Along with many others whose lives were touched by Colin, I attended his funeral.

Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death in children 1 to 4 years old and the second- leading cause in kids ages 1 to 15. About 1,000 American children die every year from unintentional drowning. Even more are hospitalized after being pulled from the water and revived. The longer a child is underwater and the longer it takes to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), the worse the outcome. It only takes about four to six minutes for irreversible brain damage to occur; 5 to 10 percent of survivors suffer permanent brain damage. It takes just minutes for a child underwater to die.

About half of preschoolers who drown do so in a residential swimming pool. But among babies most deaths occur in smaller amounts of water: bathtubs, buckets, or even toilets.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that Colin?s death wasn?t so unusual: Some kids drown in public pools with a certified lifeguard on duty, or under an adult?s supervision. Drowning can occur in an instant, and a lifeguard is watching so many people at once that he can miss something that happens so fast. What?s more, drowning can be silent. Unlike what we?ve seen in movies, children do not always flail their arms around and scream for help.

Knowing Colin?s remarkable family, I was not surprised that they turned their grief and heartache into an effort to promote water-safety awareness and prevent childhood drowning. They founded Colin?s Hope, a nonprofit organization that envisions a world where children do not drown. Jeff Holst says, ?Knowledge is power, and in raising awareness we can help save children?s lives.? In partnership with experts from the YMCA, Colin?s Hope provides swim lessons to children in central Texas who need but cannot afford them, and educates thousands more with its grassroots efforts. And it is working: Drowning deaths and drowning- related injuries of children in the target zip codes have been reduced and, in some cases, eliminated.

Colin?s parents want you to know that everyone is vulnerable in the water, no matter how well he swims. Take these simple steps to protect your kids.