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Which of these is a greater danger?
A child is 100 times more likely to drown in a pool than be killed by a gun

ARIZONA DAILY STAR | June 13, 2005
By Eric Swedlund

They're pulled from backyard pools and bathtubs each year, tiny limp bodies, blue and not breathing.

A young life can vanish quickly under water. A survivor can endure a lifetime of disabilities. Either way, families are torn apart by an almost always preventable tragedy.
 
Standard summer companions in our desert climate, swimming pools can be deadlier for children than guns. A child is 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident than in gunplay, writes Steven D. Levitt, University of Chicago economics professor and best-selling author.
 
Levitt analyzed child deaths from residential swimming pools and guns and found one child under 10 drowns annually for every 11,000 pools. By comparison, one child under 10 each year is killed by a gun for every 1 million guns, according to his research, outlined in a new book "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side to Everything," which he co-wrote with journalist Stephen J. Dubner.
 
In part because they are so familiar, swimming pools are less frightening than guns, Levitt writes.
 
But the danger is clear - drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children younger than 5 in Arizona and the second-leading cause of injury-related death nationally among children younger than 15.
 
Water kills an average of three children each year in Tucson and, even with proper fences, swimming lessons and caution, danger lurks.
 
"Living with a swimming pool in your back yard is like living next to the Grand Canyon," said Dr. Bob Berg, a pediatric intensive specialist at University Medical Center and a UA professor. "You should never feel comfortable there."
 
"It happened in blink of an eye."
 
Nothing can prepare a parent to pull a limp child from the water, wondering whether a moment of inattention has led to tragic, lifelong consequences.
 
On a February 2004 afternoon, Matilda Gits wheeled her 18-month-old son, Michael, in a wagon to a playground near a small lake in their East Side development. As Michael sat in the shade beneath the playground structure playing with wood chips, Gits leafed through her mail.
 
"When I turned around to check on him, he was gone," she said. "I didn't know where he was, but I knew I didn't have a lot of time to figure it out."
 
Gits looked toward the street, then toward the fenced pool on the other side of the playground. She still couldn't see her son, and started running toward the lake.
 
"I remember running, thinking I can't run this fast, then running faster," she said.
 
Michael was in the lake, under water. His lips were blue, his eyes rolled back in his head. Twelve weeks pregnant, Gits dived in, grabbed Michael from the water, slammed him on the back, and yelled, "Breathe!"
 
Michael started crying and neighbors called 911. Michael, now 3, is just fine, but the what-ifs still plague his mother.
 
After the accident, Gits pushed her neighborhood to install a fence separating the playground from the lake.
 
"I'm not irresponsible. If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. It happened in the blink of an eye," she said. "For a long time, when I'd drive down the street and hear an ambulance, I'd get sick to my stomach."
 
Preventable devastation
 
About 88 percent of children who drowned were under some form of supervision, according to a survey for the National SAFE Kids Campaign.
 
Small distractions such as talking to somebody, reading, eating or using the phone were a factor in most of the cases. The survey found parents are overconfident in their children's safety and abilities in water and need to be more active in supervising children.
 
"If something terrible really does happen, that's bad enough. If a child dies or is neurologically devastated, families don't get over it," said Berg, the UMC pediatrician. "Their life has been permanently changed in a way that's hard for most of us to believe.
 
"When a child dies, the devastation to a family is just overwhelming. That's true for almost all child deaths, but one of the things that's dramatic about car accidents and drowning is a few minutes before that, everything is fine. A minute later, that whole dream is shattered."
 
Medical costs for a near-drowning victim can be nearly $200,000 a year for long-term care and a child suffering brain damage may need millions of dollars in medical care, according to the National SAFE Kids Campaign. As many as 20 percent of near-drowning victims have severe permanent neurological damage.
 
There is a high divorce rate among parents who have had a child drown and many parents experience long-term psychological effects, Berg said.
 
Lingering effects
 
Lynne Gonzales knows all too well about the medical and psychological costs of a near-drowning.
 
In 1984, Gonzales' son Tony was 17 years old and nearly out of school for the summer when some friends pushed him into the deep end of a pool.
 
They didn't know he couldn't swim.
 
By the time they jumped in to save him, the damage had been done.
 
For the next 13 years, Tony lingered with severe brain damage from lack of oxygen.
 
"In some ways that has a much worse or longer effect than drowning," Gonzales said.
 
After the accident, Tony spent time in three hospitals and finally was admitted to a nursing home.
 
The years that followed, whether he was at home or a nursing home, Tony needed care around the clock due to a tracheotomy and a gastrotomy tube. His parents fought daily with insurance companies, all the while struggling to raise Tony's three younger sisters.
 
Tony's family is certain he recognized them, but he never spoke again. He could communicate by blinking his eyes, but it was inconsistent.
 
"There were moments of joy when Tony learned to sit, to stand, to swallow," said Gonzales, who moved to SaddleBrooke last year from Milwaukee. "If you worked closely with him you could see that much of his personality was still intact."
 
Tony needed around-the-clock nursing care and was at home for about six years after the accident. He died suddenly at a nursing home in 1997.
 
"You lose a part of your own future," Gonzales said. "You miss all those things that might have been."
 
The pain of a drowning or near-drowning is never-ending, said Dr. Barb Smith, a member of the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Smith has dealt with several families who have lost a child to drowning.
 
"Families are devastated by it in a way they're not if they have a child who dies from leukemia or some other equally tragic event," Smith said. "What makes drowning different is it's always someone's fault. It's preventable and there's so much remorse about that."

 

 

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