With three young children — ages 9, 5 and 2 — Ashley and Aaron Bernstein are quite experienced in the parenting department. They have a 5-year-old still in a five-point harness car seat, and they don’t allow bike rides without helmets.
They also put their kids in swim lessons at the tender age of 2; cheer as their older two children swim laps on their respective swim teams; and make sure their youngest always wears a floatation device in the water.
But they’re also the parents who, when at a pool party hosted recently by friends, experienced every parent’s unimaginable — the near drowning of their 2-year-old daughter, Emersyn.
“This can happen to anyone,” Ashley Bernstein says. “One of the first things the nurse at the hospital said to me when we arrived was that this doesn’t happen to bad parents or to the mom who doesn’t care. It happens to good parents.”
A Nightmare Scenario
The Friday afternoon pool gathering on June 21 started out like any other get-together. The Bernsteins were there with a few other families. There were nine adults and seven children; all of the kids were over the age of 5 except for Emersyn. The adults were watching the pool area as the kids went back and forth from swimming to playing in the driveway.
“I always keep Emersyn’s floats on, even when she isn’t in the pool,” says Ashley, who grew up in Reisterstown, graduated from Franklin High School and American University, and currently lives in Fayetteville, Ark. “She even had her floats on that afternoon when she was riding bikes. But when it was time for dinner, I took the floats off because she was sitting on a couch in the sunroom and I didn’t want her to get it wet.”
There was an adult in the sunroom with the kids while they were all eating dinner. When everyone finished, the kids and the adult went into the kitchen for ice cream sundaes.
But while everyone was coming indoors, Emersyn snuck out the backdoor of the sunroom onto the pool deck. A minute later, Ashley saw two adults run outside, so her instinct told her to follow them.
“One of the other mothers had pulled Emersyn out of the pool and she was lying on the pool deck when I got outside,” Ashley remembers. “She was unconscious, blue and foaming out of her mouth and nose. Another mom started CPR and Emersyn began vomiting up pool water, coughing and screaming.”
By the time the ambulance and emergency response team arrived, Emersyn was conscious. She was flown from the hospital in Fayetteville to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, where she was monitored for 24 hours.
“By the time we got to Little Rock, Emersyn’s vitals were great and she didn’t need to be on supportive oxygen,” says Ashley, whose husband grew up in Bethesda’s Jewish community and was part of the Kehila Chadasha community. “We stayed at the hospital so they could keep an eye on her. But once we got past the risk of the dry drowning, pneumonia or secondary-drowning phases, we were good to go. I kept asking if there was something for me to look out for, but I was told she’s good.”
The week following the incident, Emersyn had follow-up appointments to check her lungs. Now, nearly three weeks after the horrific scare, Emersyn is just fine and doctors say she will have no residual damage.
“Since the incident, we have started infant rescue swim lessons where Emerysn will learn that she needs to hold her breath in the water and then go up to the top and flip on her back to get air,” Ashley says. “In case of an emergency, these lessons teach kids how to get air until someone sees them. We are also starting traditional swim lessons so she can learn the strokes. And even though I know CPR, at the moment of the incident it didn’t kick in, so I’m signed up for a refresher course because CPR can make a difference.”
Ashley has talked to Emersyn about the near drowning, and through those conversations has a better picture of what took place.
“She told me she walked down the steps to get in the water and then her nose was underneath,” Ashley says. “There was no splash or fall, which is why no one saw her immediately. She thought she had her floats on, and then all of a sudden she was underwater. When she walked down the steps of the pool, she had no idea she would go under water without her floaties on.”
Keep Your Eyes Open, Your Cell Phones Down
Thankfully, Emersyn’s story has a happy ending, but many others aren’t as fortunate. According to the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of death for children ages one to 14.
Jmore spoke in May with swim instructors at Goldfish Swim School and the JCC and LifeBridge Health and Fitness to get tips on how to stay safe in the water.
While not a professional, Ashley has some suggestions of her own when it comes to private pool gatherings with large crowds.
“We could have had a designated adult as the pool watcher and taken turns sitting there,” she says of the pool area, which was in a fenced-off backyard but didn’t have a separate fence around the pool itself. “You think because there are so many people a child can’t slip by, but that almost makes it easier. Pool alarms are also worth investigating, and adults shouldn’t be on their phones.”
As the Bernsteins settle back into everyday life, Ashley says she hopes their story can help other families avoid the trauma of a water accident.
“So many people have reached out to me saying they went through the same thing,” she says. “If we keep talking about the dangers and raise awareness, maybe one person will do something differently and think twice before turning their back.”
For the most part, Emersyn has been alright going back into the water, and her survival swim lessons are helping her with the challenge of putting her face underneath.
“She is a fighter and has a guardian angel,” Ashley says. “I’m so excited to see what she does with her life because she is clearly on this earth for a reason.”
For information, visit http://safekids.org/tip/swimming-safety-tips.