Jessica Curtis and Nicole McIntire have both suffered the unbearable pain of suddenly losing a small child to a drowning in a home swimming pool.
Although they both suffer flashbacks to their real-life horror stories and are filled with anguish, the two men have chosen not to surrender – not when an average of 16 pediatric drownings occur in Maricopa County each year, according to Tracey Fejt, trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa.
Although that figure represents major progress from the 34 child drownings recorded in Maricopa County 1986, Fejt said the death toll has plateaued at this stubborn level despite constant safety messages that have been repeated from year to year.
So far this year, there have been 5 pediatric and nine adult drownings in Pinal and Maricopa counties, though none were in the East Valley.
Curtis and McIntire have dedicated their lives to turning that number into a zero, sharing their stories with East Valley adults in the hope they remember that children can’t be trusted when a swimming pool is nearby. They need to be watched like hawks.
Curtis even started a support group for parents who have experience the tragedy of a child-drowning. She has 70 members, including many in the East Valley.
Through organ donations, Curtis helped saved the lives of two children after Parker, her 22-month-old son, drowned on June 29, 2013, and was declared brain dead four days later: His heart was donated to a child in California; his liver to a child in Pennsylvania.
Curtis also teaches water survival classes several days a week at Swim Kids in Mesa.
“It’s everything I can do to keep other families from going through what I’ve been through,’’ Curtis said. “I don’t want another family to suffer another loss like I did.’’
“There’s not a second that I don’t think about it. When I get down, I look for light at the end of every horrible scene.’’
It’s hard to imagine a worse scene than Curtis witnessed the day Parker drowned. Parker was taking a nap and she was in the bathroom, getting ready to go to a July 4 event. She stepped outside the bathroom and then noticed the backdoor open.
What she did not realize was that landscapers had left a pool gate open. Curtis darted outside and saw something that she can’t possibly forget, no matter how hard she tries.
“I saw Parker at the bottom of the pool. I thought, no way, I rubbed my eyes,’’ she said, before she dove into the pool in hopes of saving her son.
In the end, it was too late. Parker had some faint brave waves. The paramedics and the doctors at Phoenix Children’s Hospital did everything they could. Finally, after four desperate days, the doctors said a prayer with the family, declared Parker brain-dead and harvested his organs.
The memory returns periodically.
“We all have our bad days,’’ Curtis said, alluding to fellow members of her Healing and Hope After Drowning support, which is associated with the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona.
“There are days where I want to lay in my bed and cry,’’ Curtis said.
But she knows that accomplishes nothing. She knows Parker would want her to save others.
Nicole McIntire suffered the same crushing loss when her daughter Emily Rose, 16 months old, drowned in a relative’s pool in Los Angeles. The pool did not have a fence.
McIntire said she was not present during the incident and only learned what had happened after a friend called, told her there had been accident and that she needed to come to the hospital. By the time McIntire arrived, her daughter was already gone.
Eventually, she moved to Arizona with her husband Jason and her older son Chris to start a new life.
“I don’t know where I would be in my life if I didn’t find the coalition and become an advocate. It can happen to anyone,’’ McIntire said. “I don’t want my daughter’s life to go in vain.’’
A talented seamstress, McIntire had made Emily Rose, “a sweet little beautiful girl,’’ a Tinker Bell costume, because Tinker Bell was her favorite character. She never dreamed that she would also bury Emily in the costume.
Today, she makes special dresses as a side business or for the daughters of her friends, always knowing that she’d rather be making them for Emily Rose.
McIntire struggled with how to tell Chris, now 9, that his sister had passed away. She also had to deal with questions that broke her heart, like when Chris asked her, “Mom, when is Emily coming home?’’
“I have to put on a façade for him sometimes. Sometimes I am hurting so bad. I don’t want him to know I feel horrible about this,’’ she said.
She said she has heard Chris tell other children when they see Emily Rose’s picture, “That’s my sister. She died three years ago. Now she is my guardian angel.’’
McIntire shares her story on social media and with parents she meets in her neighborhood and through her son’s baseball team. She also has appeared with Curtis, her mentor in the drowning prevention crusade, at water-safety events.
“She’s given me a lot of support and encouragement. She has inspired me to help when I can,’’ McIntire said.
Firefighters and safety advocates say all drownings are preventable but that it takes a concentrated, unending effort to keep small children safe around water.
They recommend focused adult supervision, a fence with a self-latching gate around the pool and swimming lessons, which can start as young as 9 months old.
They say even a momentary distraction on an adult’s part can create enough time for a child to drown, and the fence is required as a backstop to buy additional time.
The problem is so severe that Michele Long, the Mesa Fire Department’s drowning prevention coordinator, recommends putting a life vest on any child visiting a home without a pool fence.
“When you are telling family members, ‘Watch my children,’ that is not enough,’’ Long said. “It has to be direct supervision.’’
The Children’s Safety Zone, a website operated by the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona, reflects the chronic nature of the heartbreaking problem, with the number of pediatric drownings in Maricopa County dropping from 27 in 2001 to 15 in 2017.
In the East Valley, four children ages 5 and younger, the official age range defined pediatric drownings, drowned in 2017. That includes three in Mesa and one each in Gilbert and Chandler.
Phoenix had six, which represents a typical death toll but a significant improvement from the 15 recorded in 2001.
More adults than children drown in Maricopa County. In 2017, 43 out of 61 victims in were adults.
Gilbert’s number of water-related incidents dropped from 19 to nine in 2017, but the town still recorded two drownings – one pediatric and one adult.
Gilbert does not have an ordinance requiring a fence to surround a pool, but a state law passed in the 1990s during a drowning epidemic requires them.
Deputy Fire Chief Josh Ehrman was less than elated, however, realizing there also are near-drownings, in which being underwater too long cuts off oxygen to the brain, resulting in cognitive deficits that last a lifetime.
“We had a great year in the sense that the numbers are down, but a perfect year is zero,’’ Ehrman said. “It’s an absolute nightmare for everyone involved.”
While firefighters preach constant vigilance, they say there is a high risk of a momentary lapse in supervision of children around water – the kind that leads to fatalities or a lifetime of disabilities caused by nearly drowning.
“Yes, we all want to watch our kids. At the same time, we need multiple barriers to succeed,’’ Fejt said. She said many drownings still occur at pools not enclosed by a fence or with an inappropriate fence.
Many times, people don’t understand the brief amount of time it takes for a child to drown, or the multitude of scenarios that can contribute to a drowning, Fejt said. Nearly every year, for instance, a Maricopa County child climbs through a doggie door and drowns.
In a world full of distractions, Long said, the risk of human factors contributing to drowning is very high.
“A lot of people automatically think you can blame the parents. That’s not true,’’ Long said. “Most of it is a lapse in supervision. It could be a cell phone or another child.’’
Ehrman hopes he has responded to his last drowning call, but he knows the risk is always lurking in a desert community with a lot of children and pools.
“I wish we knew the right formula for people to be aware all the time and watch kids around water,’’ Ehrman said. “Every agency does prevention every year. The hope is that one family is saved.’’