7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Lost My Son to a Drowning Accident

A mom opens up about the painful loss of her 14-month-old and what she wants other parents to know to help prevent these accidents.
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Published June 24, 2020
toddler boy with his dad in the pool
Image: The Sylas Project

In just moments, my 14-month-old son Sylas escaped our supervision in our own home, and we lost him forever to a drowning accident. The things I wish I had known before this happened is something that brings a deep sadness in me every single day, because this accident could have been prevented. I could still have him in my arms today.

We were in our first home when I exclaimed, “Where is Sylas?” to my husband. I had just seen him. We immediately started searching, thinking we would find him quickly.

“Sylas! Sylas!” we screamed, searching all over the house. We started to panic. I remember glancing at our swimming pool from our living room and didn’t see him. Every minute was such a blur. My entire body was shaking from fear as the minutes passed and we couldn’t find him. I had never felt such a horrible feeling.

All of these crazy thoughts started appearing in my head. “What if he somehow got out of the house?” “What if somebody took him?” I opened up the front door and ran toward our garage and looked at the street. I saw nothing. He couldn’t have gotten far. Nothing made sense as to why he wasn’t in sight. It started feeling like he just disappeared. I was severely anxious, desperate to find my Sylas. How was this happening?

Suddenly, I heard my husband’s horrific scream from the backyard. He pulled our son from the swimming pool and he looked completely lifeless. My entire body was shaking, and in tears, I repeated, “No, no, no! Please God, take me instead, please take me instead,” over and over again. We attempted to perform CPR until paramedics arrived, but we weren’t confident that we were doing it correctly. Paramedics got there quickly and Sylas was rushed to the hospital, where they were able to get a pulse back after trying for over half an hour.

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We continuously prayed for a miracle, every single minute of our stay. The doctors told us the first 72 hours were the most critical. Nurses said they see these accidents all the time, and that patients who survive are almost always left in a semi-permanent or permanent vegetative state, not able to breathe, eat or move on their own. Once the first 72 hours passed, they started to wean him off sedatives, but he never showed any other signs of brain activity.

We slept by his bedside for two weeks. I talked to him, gave him kisses and told him stories all day. We were praying for him to open his eyes. To show us something. Any sign of life, any sign that my Sylas was still there. Praying for God to give him a second chance—to give us a second chance at life with him. But he didn’t. He had other plans.

Image: The Sylas Project

I had never experienced an emptiness and a level of pain so immense that your heart physically hurts. No parent ever thinks they will outlive their child. It’s not the order of life. I think about all the things I could have done to prevent this from happening, or things I wish I would have known.

We believe Sylas made his way out of the house through the pet door, as that was the only doorway open in the house. I replay difference scenarios in my head and imagine all the ways this accident could have been avoided. I wish pediatricians would have told me that drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 4. Why didn’t I know this? I’ve always been the type of person to read every baby article and every recommendation to land in my inbox. I always thought I was prepared to support him through every milestone. I always did my best and depended on pediatricians and parenting articles to help me navigate. Why isn’t this shared more often?

I also wish I had known that drowning is completely silent. I always thought there would be splashing or waving for help. I always felt that we’d be right there to pull him out quickly if he were to ever slip in. Reflecting on that thought, it really shows the lack of awareness and misconception of these accidents. In the same way that we ensure our babies sleep on their backs with no pillows or blankets in the crib, we should make pool safety a priority, not an afterthought.

We bought our house before Sylas was born, so having a pool fence hadn’t been on our radar. I had reached out to a pool fence company one month before the accident because he was starting to take his first wobbly steps. I had submitted a request for them to come out to our house through their website, but they never got back to me. Exactly a week before the accident, I reached out to another pool fence company in hopes of getting it installed quickly, and they told me they would come out in the next few days. But then everything slowed down due to the pandemic, and it took me losing sight of him momentarily to lose him forever. I wish I had a pool fence installed before he even came home with us from the hospital, or at least before he started to crawl. I had baby-proofed every other area in my home. I should have never waited a single day.

Thinking about the day of the accident, I wish I had thoroughly checked the pool. Every second mattered. There was a pool float in the water and I wonder if the reason I didn’t see him initially was because the float was blocking him from my view. I also keep wondering if that float was what possibly tempted him to grab at it and fall in. I wish I had never left anything in the pool.

I wish that when I was reading my six-month baby update article that it had included a tip to enroll your baby in swim lessons before they can crawl. I regret not having put my son in swim lessons sooner. It’s always been something I wanted to do, but I’ll never have that experience with Sylas.

My husband and I had been working from home due to the pandemic for a few months and we would spend the afternoons after work swimming in the pool. We would put Sylas’s little swimsuit on and bring him in too. He loved being in the water. We would usually place Sylas in those flotation devices that keep his head up above the water so we could all hang out together without having to feel anxious about him breathing in water. It took me losing him forever to read that those flotation devices give young children a false sense of security and muscle memory, allowing them to think they can float if they were to ever reach water. I wish I had never allowed him to feel so comfortable in water without him knowing how to self-rescue first. Not having taught my 14-month-old son to float sooner is a regret I’ll live with for the rest of my life.

My last regret is wishing I had never bought a pet door for my dogs. That little door was always closed, and the one time it was left open so the dogs could go outside is when the accident happened. Kids learn to unlock these doors by watching us and can imitate the dogs by slipping out through the dog door. My husband feels so much guilt at times for even having installed it. I have to constantly remind him that it was an accident. But still, it haunts us every single day. We feel like we failed our son by not protecting him.

Everyone usually watches these tragic events happen from afar. We feel terrible and then continue with our day. No one thinks this will happen to them. But it can happen to anyone if you don’t take preventive measures before your baby starts moving. We need to shift our thinking on this issue in order to create change. Just as we can’t leave the hospital without a car seat, we have to take early, proactive precautions for water safety.

We lost our only son, our entire heart and soul. My parents lost their only grandson. My sister lost her nephew. He is my first thought when I open my eyes and the last thought when I close them. Everyday is so hard struggling to find meaning in life without my Sylas.

In honor of my son, I created a nonprofit called The Sylas Project to spread awareness around child drownings. These accidents are preventable, and yet the statistics haven’t changed in decades. I also started a petition to pass a law that requires all homes with a swimming pool to comply with a pool safety inspection before the new owner is able to move in. Please take a moment to sign and share. We can’t change the past, but with your help we can change the future.

Andrea Montoya is a multidisciplinary designer focused on creating digital experiences for all platforms. She is the founder of The Sylas Project, a nonprofit dedicated to her son Sylas through which she raises awareness on the importance of water safety and pool safety in order to protect the future of children.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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