ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – It can happen in the blink of an eye. Accidental drownings remain the leading cause of death in children between the ages of 1 to 4. Sadly, many families on the First Coast have lived through the tragedy of losing a child to drowning. It almost happened to the Harry family in St. Johns County.
Mandy Harry and her husband have six healthy, vibrant children. The youngest is 3-year-old Calvin, a boy Harry describes as cheerful, strong-willed and independent. As Harry learned, life can change in a second.
“I want parents to realize that this happened very fast,” Harry said. “Drowning can happen very fast, it’s very silent, and it’s devastating.”
The Harrys’ ordeal began just over a month ago at a friend’s pool party in St. Johns County. Harry said children of all ages -- and more than a dozen adults -- were around the pool. She said Calvin had been swimming while wearing a puddle jumper life jacket. A puddle jumper is a swim vest that fits across a child’s chest and is attached to two arm floaties. It is secured through a hook that fastens in the back.
Harry said Calvin asked her to remove it so he could go inside and get a snack. The next thing she knew, the unthinkable happened.
“I heard my sister scream his name,” Harry said. “I looked over and he was laying on the side of the pool deck, lifeless.”
Somehow, within just a couple of minutes, Calvin had managed to get back into the pool without anyone noticing. A 14-year-old boy spotted him in the water and pulled him out. Harry’s sister began CPR immediately, with loved ones nearby praying hard.
“We were just kind of yelling at him, ‘Calvin, we need you, we need you,’” Harry said. “‘Please come back.’”
Harry said CPR went on for an agonizing six minutes. Then, as she puts it, a miracle happened. Water started coming up, and Calvin began breathing again.
“The right things happened at the right time,” Harry said. “Because seconds difference would have mattered.”
Calvin was rushed to the emergency room, and later Wolfson Children’s Hospital, where he was kept overnight. Hours later, he awoke in the middle of the night, wanting to pull off wires and watch TV on an iPad. These were all good signs, but for any parent, fear still lingered.
“It’s so hard to think back about that day because there are so many things I wish I had done different,” Harry said. “I know how quickly something can happen when children are around water.”
Harry said the healing process is just beginning, and the family has learned a lot in the last month.
“I think I got too comfortable,” Harry said. “I have five other children who made it without incident their whole lives. I just really think I got too comfortable.”
What’s more, Harry believes the puddle jumper itself played a factor in Calvin’s accident. With the way its design forces a child in an upright position in the water, she felt it created a false sense of security.
“He thought he could swim,” Harry said. “He thought he could swim, and I took the puddle jumper off of him to get a snack and he went back in because he thought he could swim.”
A few weeks ago, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office honored 14-year-old Luke Dorow and Karen Brown for their heroic actions in saving Calvin’s life. Harry said the healing process is just beginning.
“Every night, before I go to sleep, I sneak back in his room,” Harry said. “And I just get on my knees, and I pray and thank God for letting me have him.”
Calvin hasn’t shown signs of being afraid of the water, and his family has taken him to see a therapist. That therapist believes he will likely have memories of his ordeal down the line. But for Harry, with this near tragedy came a new purpose.
“I know I’m a good mom, and this still happened to us,” Harry said. “We’re just so happy that Calvin is 100% fine, and I’m here to spread this mission, spread this message to everybody. It’s my mission now for the rest of my life.”
The week after Calvin’s accident, his parents enrolled him in swimming lessons. Infant Swimming Resource, known as ISR, is just one of many good options here on the First Coast. To learn more or find an ISR instructor near you, click here.