To Save a Life

Resort Pool

Family vacations don’t often start out so dramatically, nor finish so profoundly, but lately it seems I have had a summer of visceral experiences surrounding what most might consider “leisure time” with the family.

Our first day at the resort pool recently, while minding my own business with my own children, ages 21 – 8, and with my wife, I was snapped out of my vacation mode daze by the lifeguard’s whistle. A young girl, apparently swimming alone in about four feet of water, was drowning.

Too far away for me to get there before the lifeguard, I watched in stunned amazement as the lifeguard wadded quickly to the girl’s side and then lifted her out of the water.

The girl had no flotation device, but clearly had no clue how to swim or float on her own.

No parent came running to snatch her up.

The lifeguard brought the girl to the edge of the pool and then assisted her up and out, where the girl was met by an older sister. The girl was coughing and was wide-eyed but otherwise seemed fine.  Just moments before she was clearly in distress, gulping water while trying to suck in air as her head bobbed up and then slowly down into the water, limbs uselessly flailing.

This brief moment of horror triggered memories of similar experiences over the years with my own children in pools. My wife and I are extremely vigilant, but realize our limitations. From young ages we exposed our children to water, their grandparent’s pool playing a prominent role.

My four boys are all Boy Scouts, the two oldest are Eagle Scouts and have aged out of the boy program, the next boy is a Life Scout working on Eagle, and then the youngest is a Tenderfoot Scout, just turned 11 years old. For all of them, the first Eagle Scout required Merit Badge they earned was the Swimming Merit Badge. My oldest son also earned the Lifesaving Merit Badge.

Swimming Merit Badge

We also gave our children swimming lessons from very young ages. We live on an island. It seems like every other family has a pool or a family member with a pool. How could one not teach their children how to swim?

My wife and I are so paranoid that if one of our children is invited to a pool party, my wife goes and then stays, at pool side, every second our child is in the pool. Helicopter parents?  Maybe. Alive children? Definitely.  My wife was a lifeguard as a teen, but takes no chances, even when the odd pool party includes a teenage lifeguard. She’s there.

Every summer it seems there are stories about toddlers or other young children drowning in pools on Long Island. We don’t even have a pond in our backyard. Not taking any chances.

At the last pool party my 8 year-old daughter attended, my wife told me she stayed pool side even when our daughter was high and dry doing something else. She said she did it because no other adult was watching the children, even though there were toddlers in the pool. She said one mother, after putting “water wing” inflatable arm flotation devices on her toddler child said out loud, “There, now I don’t have to worry about you,” and then walked away.

Is it millennial parenting? Is it naivete? Lack of common sense?

A first time parent colleague of mine with a month-old son told me that millennial parents were avoiding mini vans because that’s what their parents had. He included himself in that category. Are millennial parents also rejecting helicopter parenting because that’s what their parents did?

When my wife and I had just two children, at a time when our second child was super rambunctious, we went to a water park for kids. While moving from attraction to attraction we used a harness and, for lack of a better term, a leash on him. We felt that because of the crowds, and our resistance to using a stroller (we practiced attachment parenting for all of our children), we felt the leash would give him the freedom to walk (OK, “toddle”), but also keep him relatively safe. Also, we wouldn’t lose the little rug rat among all the others!

Wouldn’t you know it that my wife was verbally assaulted by a young lady who obviously had no children of her own, for being a “horrible person” for putting a leash on our child?

children_11

The following year, this same child, without the leash, went missing at the very same water park. I had taken the two boys into the changing-slash-men’s room. We took adjoining stalls and I told the boys to wait for me, “outside the stall door,” and then we would all leave together.

I changed quickly and then found my oldest son waiting outside the stall. “Where’s your brother?” I asked him. He didn’t know. Of course, panic sets in almost immediately when you think you’ve lost one of your children. I calmed myself and then figured the younger boy was still changing. He was not. After a frenetic search we discovered he was not in the facility at all. He was gone.

If you’ve ever lost a child, one of the most difficult things you do is tell your spouse you’ve lost a child. It didn’t go over well. Cooler heads prevailed, however and we began searching together by making concentric circles around the place we last saw him. The park was very crowded and was about to close. The thought of him being taken and never seeing him again began to creep into my mind and soul as we searched and couldn’t find him.

Eventually we got fairly far from the changing room and in our desperate exasperation happened to notice the Lost Child building. My wife and I looked at each other and then nearly sprinted to the place.

We saw him through the glass in the window. He was being spoken to by an attendant who was on bent knee to get to his level. My son was in tears. But he was safe, and we had found him.

He told us he thought I meant for him to wait outside the restroom. So he went outside after being the first one to finish changing. He looked around (while we searched for him inside) and then figured we had gone to meet up with his mother, who was changing in the women’s facility. He went the wrong way and then found himself lost in the middle of a very large bustling crowd. He said he began to cry which was when a very nice woman with her own child asked him if he was lost. He said he was, and then she took him to the lost child area.

A happy ending, but a terrifying experience for both parents and child. One we will never forget, and one that caused us to re-double our efforts. We both neurotically count to five – the number of children we have – when we are out and about with everyone . . . most of the time.

Of course, none of us are immune from these things, no matter how vigilant or careful or caring. One gets distracted, and it only takes a split second.

So on this most recent trip, experienced as we are at staying relatively close in crowded areas, and never feeling comfortable splitting up, we lost one again.

This time, after seeking shelter from a sweltering Central Florida sun, we left the coolness of a souvenir shop to visit an attraction. All of us that is except for the 10 year-old. He had apparently found something very interesting in the store to look at, looked up, and then noticed we had all left him behind.

Instead of panicking and running out of the store looking for us and then getting hopelessly lost, he stayed put. He positioned himself near the entrance to the store and then waited.

My wife, who immediately rushed back to the store, found him grinning at the entrance. When they met up with us outside the attraction he calmly stated that he knew exactly what to do because he had recently earned the Boy Scout Search and Rescue Merit Badge, which taught him to stay put in a visible area if he got lost. Bingo.

We survived heat indexes of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and our vacation was coming to a close, when we sought out the refreshment of the resort pool prior to leaving for our flight home. It was the coolest day of the whole vacation, overcast, not too humid and only around 75 degrees. A blessing!

We had all walked and average of over 9 miles per day in the amusement parks; seeking shelter most days from noon until four or five in the afternoon.

My body ached. Every part of my body ached, including my head, as I had picked up a wicked sinus headache the day before.

My plan was to sit in the hot tub for fifteen minutes and then jump into the pool, over and over again.

By the third time I was feeling much better. I highly recommend this for any ailment!

I had just gotten out of the hot tub for the third time and was wading into the now very cool water of the pool; kind of in a temperature transition daze, really immersed in the experience and the pleasure of feeling better than I had felt since starting the vacation, and then I saw him.

The drowning toddler wasn’t far away, and he was looking straight at me, right in the eyes, which burn into me as I recall this. The eyes said, “I’m dying and there’s nothing I can do about it, please help me.”

I had seen the look in my own children’s eyes, when, as many parents have experienced, your young child starts taking on water and then disappears underneath the surface. You quickly yank them to the surface, they cough a bit and then everything is fine. Lesson learned.

This boy had water wings on, but he had splayed his arms out so far that the flotation devices were actually preventing him from keeping his head above water, as his head became the unsupported center. The water wings supported only his little arms.

He gasped and then gulped as he began taking on water, a lot of water, and then he disappeared under the surface.

I took two steps toward him, heard the lifeguard’s whistle blow, and then pulled him out with one hand, then grasped him under the armpits with both hands holding him up as if to say, “Hey, I have someone’s child here.” He coughed and gasped, but seemed OK, despite his wide, terrified eyes.

The millennial father came around from behind me just then, grabbed his son from me and then said, breathlessly, “Thanks.”

The lifeguard, who had jumped in, apparently seeing what I saw about the time I saw it, turned and then got back out of the pool. She went on about life-guarding everyone else. Not a word or a glance. Par for the course?

I didn’t even turn to watch the father leave with his son. I was feeling kind of stunned by the whole thing, which probably took place in a span of about five or six seconds. I knew what he was feeling and I didn’t want to exacerbate his embarrassment by engaging him.

The boy was safe, that was the important thing.

The parents had been fortunate that the lesson they learned that day was not a tragic one, but only a near tragic one.

Lifeguard-20868116

Life comes at you fast, but then so can death. It is God’s blessing when we are in the right place at the right time, and then do the right thing. How long will it be now before I can truly relax in a resort swimming pool?

Just please remember, these things are not “accidents.” Every tragic or near tragic incident has precipitating events, some controllable, some not. Hopefully, this story will help some “hands-off” parents think twice.

There’s nothing embarrassing or un-cool about doing what you feel is best and safe for your children, no matter their age or experience. We know our kids best, and we have to live with the consequences of our actions or inaction’s.

Our most important job as parents is always to protect and keep our children safe and secure. Letting go as they get older is another story. But for now, let’s be safe out there, our children’s lives depend on it.

Advertisements

Tragedy on the Gridiron

Tragedy

(Updated as of 8/15/17).

Very recently in my community there was a tragedy on the high school gridiron. A 16 year old high school junior, attending an off season football strength and conditioning camp, was struck in the head while participating in a Navy SEAL-like teamwork, strength and endurance drill with a 10 foot long “telephone pole” type wooden log.

There are few specific details publicly available, only that it happened while five boys, including the victim, were participating in the drill and that the victim was said to be in the middle of the group and the boys were raising the log over their heads. Was the grass wet? Did the boys lose their grip?

In any case, the boy was struck in the head during the morning workout. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The same hospital where all five of my children were born, now ages 21 – 8.

“Can you imagine,” my wife said after learning of the tragedy, “dropping your child off in the morning at a place you would think he would be safe, and then getting a telephone call that he had died?” I cannot.

This part of Long Island is no stranger to high school football fatalities. Less than three years ago another young man, who was playing in a local regular season high school football game collided with an opponent, head on, collapsed and then died from his head injury.

As a former football player and athletic administrator, I can tell you that head injuries and injuries in general are a painful reminder that we can never be “too safe.” I remember vividly a rainy night football game played on natural turf, where the field conditions were less than desirable, and within five minutes of each other two players were removed from the field with broken bones. It happens that quick, and without warning.

But there is something different about this fatal injury.

U.S. Navy SEAL training techniques have become more and more popular as slowly over the past several years, the Navy SEALs have become more and more demystified through movies and books that take us inside the elite group’s training and performance methods.

The Log Drill is a series of physically, mentally and emotionally challenging maneuvers in which a team of about five men perform these drills with a log weighing approximately 400 pounds. If everybody does their share, that’s 80 pounds each.

When was the last time you lifted 80 pounds over your head? Could you lift 80 pounds over your head? Why would you lift 80 pounds over your head? What part of playing football requires a player to lift 80 pounds over his head?

Yes, these are strapping young men, strong, with endurance and fortitude, being taught how to work as a team, the hard way.

As an athletic administrator for public school programs on Long Island, I emphasized to coaches that the student athletes who chose to participate in their programs did so because they enjoyed playing the sport. I told the coaches that it was vital to remember that their student athletes were kids and not adults, no matter how much like men they looked, and not to treat them like college or professional athletes. It would have never occurred to me to tell them not to treat them like elite warriors.

I encouraged my coaches to study child psychology and to employ those principles in their coaching style. I encouraged my coaches to “Always make practice fun.” “End each practice with a fun activity, so that they go home happy and wanting more, and feeling good about themselves.” Drill and kill makes for unhappy players.

In the professions of physical education and athletic coaching safety must always be the first consideration. Physical educators are trained to always inspect the gym or teaching space and the supplies and equipment to be used prior to teaching their lesson. Good coaches do the same. But at what point does common sense kick in? At what point do you say to yourself, “Gee, I wonder what would happen if one, just one of these boys slipped and the 400 pound log came crashing down one of their heads?”

We call what happened a “tragedy” because it is a classic example of what a tragedy is. Some call it a “tragic accident.” Some will call it negligent. And that will be for the police and lawyers to figure out. But those of us with military experience (I served 22 years in the Army, as an enlisted Combat Medic and then as a Medical Service Corps officer) know that a dead soldier is an ineffective soldier. So we teach and train safety first, especially out of the combat zone. In the combat zone, we say “Mission First, Safety Always!”

As soldiers, we knew what we did was inherently dangerous, and could cost us our life, limb or eyesight. But in a civilian setting, where children are involved and looking up to and trusting the adults around them who are legally in loco parentis (“In place of the parent”), to keep them safe and healthy as a parent would, my opinion is that there is never an excuse for potentially putting their life at risk for the purpose of team building, conditioning or any other reason. Nothing we do as adults responsible for the health, safety and welfare of a child should ever potentially cost them their life.

We are deceived by the size and athleticism of today’s young student athletes. We forget that our public school interscholastic education programs are just that, interscholastic education, and not life or death scenarios.

Coaching egos and over training have taken the place of always doing what’s in the best interest of the student athlete. We allow false dreams of college and professional success and fame to cloud better judgement as more and more youth’s who participate in athletics are tracked to one sport over another, with year round training and travel leagues. Less than 1 percent of high school athletes ever play on a college scholarship. Less than 1 percent of college players ever play in the pros. And the average career in the pros lasts only from 3-5 years.

Football is the modern equivalent of war in the minds of some. We “Fight, fight, fight!” “Kill, kill, kill!” “Rip ’em apart!” Believe me, when General George S. Patton, in a speech to his troops during WWII implored his men to grease the wheels of their tanks with the guts of the enemy, he wasn’t talking to teenagers preparing to play a game.

The rhetoric and techniques used by youth coaches need to be developmentally appropriate. I’ve had coaches disciplined for inappropriate language, tobacco use and other behavior detrimental to the proper development of young student athletes, yet on any given day you could walk through even a youth league practice and shouldn’t be surprised the hear things that would make your mother blush.

Foul language and Navy SEAL drills don’t grow hair on the chests of young men. Using fun cooperative games, sports and activities leads to better teamwork and leadership skills than making them put a 400 pound log over their heads.

Youth leaders need to work smarter and not harder. Even the pros are reconsidering bulk work outs in favor of resistance training. Lean core fitness, speed and quickness drills, push-ups and sit-ups yield a far healthier and effective student athlete than over-working bodies and muscles to the point of musculoskeletal failure or injury. Form is more important than weight. When the body is tired and fatigued it is most susceptible to injury. Why didn’t these “coaches” know this?

Last few points. In a local front page news article about this tragedy, public school athletics officials were quoted as saying there was “only one out of season practice rule” for interscholastic student athletes, that they not be forced to participate in out of season activities. That is in fact only half of the regulation. The other half is that out of season workouts need to be open to anyone.

This is from the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA), Inc., Bylaws and Eligibility Standards, page 130, Section 22. (NYSPHSAA is to governing body of New York State public high school athletics and is affiliated with the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations (NFHS); the local governing body in Suffolk County, New York, where the tragedy occurred, and which answers to the state association is Section IX).

“c. School sponsored activities conducted out of the sport season such as general
conditioning, weight training, weight lifting, intramurals, recreation, open gyms, club
activities and camps are permitted: 1) if such programs are not mandated by coaches or
school personnel; 2) if such programs are available to all students.
“d. Non-school sponsored activities are permitted if such programs are not mandated by
coaches or school personnel. It is recommended that no school equipment be used for
these programs as per State Comptroller Opinion 85-37.”

(Corrected from 8/12/17 version.) So a “non-school sponsored activity” (the strength and conditioning camp that contributed to the death of the 16 year old) can be mandated through a booster club, by non-affiliated coaches and trainers – just not the actual team coaches.

This off season work out had nothing to do with the school district’s official activities. The booster club sponsored the activity. According to the article, each boy had to pay $325 for the camp. Since it was “non-curricular” the state law (New York State Commissioner’s Regulation 135, Guidelines for the Coaching Requirements, pp. 48-73) requiring coaching certifications for anyone working with the student athletes in a scholastic setting didn’t apply. There could be any nut case working with these boys who were hired by the booster club. And oh, by the way, the bulk of that $325 went to salaries for these fitness and conditioning “specialists.” These things you won’t find in the article.

Public school districts need to take a hard look at what activities they allow on their premises, and booster clubs need to hire licensed teachers and coaches for their extra season camps if they are going to use school facilities.

After this tragedy, if this was the case, there is no excuse for allowing non-certified coaches/trainers to work with public school student athletes, ever. If a parent wants to seek out a “professional” trainer for their child on their own, that’s their business, but for public schools to allow and facilitate it is unconscionable. If a “trainer’s” only qualification is that they were a Navy SEAL, or college or professional athlete, an alumni perhaps with no other proper coaching qualifications or certifications, take a pass. No disrespect intended.

Intentions aside, without the proper training and coaching style, it’s only a matter of time before tragedy or negligence strikes again.