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HEALTH The Drowning Season

A doctor crusades against summer’s death trap for toddlers.
By DEBORAH MORRIS |

ONE WARM SPRING WEEKEND IN 1987, Dr. Dan Levin raced into the emergency room at Children’s Medical Center to find a nearly drowned toddler sprawled motionless on a gurney. The small boy was the second child that day to be admitted after being pulled from a backyard pool. A nurse’s quietly spoken observation deeply chilled Levin: “The drowning season,” she said sadly, “is starting early this year.”

Limp tots, weeping parents. As the medical director of Pediatric Intensive Care at both Children’s Medical Center and Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Dan Levin had sometimes treated as many as five small drowning victims in a day during warm-weather months. In many cases, the children-like this little boy-had simply wandered into their families’ pools. It had become an all-too-familiar pattern, and when the ER nurse gave the cycle of tragedy a name, something snapped.

Since then, Levin has waged a tireless crusade on behalf of Dallas’s youngest citizens. His dark eyes grow intense as he talks about the . innocents he’s seen robbed of health-or even life.

“The biggest problem,” Levin explains, “is that parents-and pool owners in particular-think it’ll never happen in their pool or to their child. They assume accidents only occur when parents or care-i takers are careless. And unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.”

Two years ago, Mark and Susan Yowe’s three-year-old son, Stephen, stumbled into the pool at their home off Walnut Hill Lane. The small, red-haired boy died several weeks later without ever regaining consciousness.

“We were so careful, so conscious of the danger,” Mark recalls painfully. “We never allowed our sons to play in the back yard unless one of us was with them. But that day, they were both playing on the swing set when Susan had to step inside for just a moment. And that was all it took.”

He adds softly, “Stephen had taken swimming lessons; he could swim all the way across the pool. At the time, we really thought we were doing everything right to keep the kids safe.”

Nationally each year about 4,000 children under five years old have accidents in residential pools. More than 300 of them die, and up to 1,500 others are left with serious injuries-brain damage, blindness, lung and kidney damage, etc. The average amount of time the child is out of sight before being missed is less than five minutes.

In 1983, Paul and Suzanne Whiteman’s two-year-old daughter Chelsea wandered through a sliding glass door and into their backyard pool on Garland’s Bardfield Drive. Although Chelsea survived the incident, severe brain damage has left the child-now nine years old-permanently wheelchair-bound and unresponsive.

“Some things are obvious to you; you know to do them: to keep plants off the floor, or to put sharp objects away,” Paul Whiteman says. “What you don’t know to guard against are less obvious things, like a toddler opening a heavy glass door for the first time. One unexpected action can change your child’s life-and yours-forever.”

Steve Vargo, with the Dallas office of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, says the best precaution is to fence the pool itself, separating it from the house.

Largely due to Dan Levin’s efforts, in 1988 Dallas became one of the first cities in the United States to require independent fencing around private pools or, as a minimum, automatic latches on all doors and gates leading to pools.

Levin is pleased with Dallas’s response to the problem. He’s quick to point out, however, that none of the Metroplex’s suburban cities so far have chosen to follow suit. He was especially disappointed last year when the Garland City Council defeated a similar pool ordinance.

“No one’s denying that homebuilders and other commercial interests have rights,” he says bitterly, “but over the last ten years we’ve seen more than 200 Dallas-area children injured or killed in pools. What about their rights to a safe environment?”

Garland’s Mayor Ruth Nicholson, however, feels the central issue remains one of private vs. public responsibility’.

“1 have difficulty with the concept of requiring all pool owners, whether they have small children or not, to completely enclose their pools with fencing,” says Nicholson. “We can certainly alert them to the potential hazards, but I feel it’s intrusive to go much beyond that. Parents, as always, bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring their children’s safety.”

The argument is a familiar one; Levin usually responds by pointing to mandatory child car seat laws and child labor laws, , designed, he says, “to protect children in spile of their parents.” But another objection commonly voiced by homeowners-that fences “ruin the view” of a pool-leaves the physician openly angry.

“I would welcome anybody who believes that a view of their pool is so important to come visit us in the ICU,” he snaps. “Come see one of these children; talk to their families. If you think a fence looks bad, you ought to see a dead toddler.”

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