It happened in seconds. In one minute, Sipho Mangcu’s jubilant 4-year-old son, Biko, was rinsing the burger off her plate at a backyard pool party on Memorial Day weekend. Sipho went back inside to get another burger for him.
But when Sipho returned to the sprawling garden at Brookline moments later with a fresh plate, Biko was being hoisted out of the pool, by the steps at the shallow end. He was unconscious and Sipho knew immediately that he was gone.
With six adults supervising the children, Sipho and the other parents at the party earlier that afternoon discussed the importance of pool and water safety. “We don’t want to go to the hospital today!” they had scolded when the children’s splashing caught their attention. But tragically, the day ended right there. In hindsight, Sipho told me, she wished she had stayed no more than an arm’s length from Biko’s side in the water that afternoon. Many parents are unaware of the dangers of drowning to young children. It can happen in as little as an inch of water. Young children tend to drown silently and quickly. Learning to swim is the best prevention. But in the absence of swimming skills, the next best thing in prevention is to have a parent no more than an arm’s length from their child.
Like most 4-year-olds in 2022, Biko has had little access to swimming lessons due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting disruptions to children’s group classes. Swimming lessons were a top priority for the camp this summer, Sipho told me. “But it’s too late,” she sobbed. “My older daughter was an experienced swimmer by the age of four,” she told me. “I’m still in disbelief, he was just so perfect and his light so bright. I can’t believe we have to learn to live without him. It is not normal. We fight. I would do anything to go back to that day and save other parents from going through what I’m going through now, knowing what I know now.”
Accidental drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4 in the United States. The highest percentage of these deaths occur in swimming pools. Death rates from drowning among blacks are 1.5 times higher than their white counterparts, with the differences being greatest among black children. In Massachusetts, where I work as a pediatric surgeon and critical care specialist, there have been an alarming number of drowning incidents since the pandemic began. There have been multiple failures to protect children from drowning, with limited access to group swimming lessons, a lack of available lifeguards and families with pent-up energy from months or weeks of social isolation looking to cool off in the water.
Biko was nine years younger than Sipho’s older daughter. Sipho described him as a radiant boy who enchanted children and adults alike wherever we went. “Every store in Harvard Square knows Biko,” she laughed. “He loved cars and trucks, fashion and music.” She kept a set of toy hats in her car, which Biko often used as drums during their jam sessions together. Biko was always careful around pools, Sipho assured me. Always the model: “He didn’t like it when his hair got wet,” she said, smiling.
When we hear about drowning, we often imagine that there must have been irresponsible errors of judgment or supervision – but this narrative misses the whole story. Parents need to be made aware that drowning can happen in almost any scenario – in shallow water, under experienced swimmers, and sometimes with parents nearby.
I still have haunting memories of my own son slipping beneath the surface of a family pool two summers ago. My older daughter cheered me on and begged for more cannonballs. We had given my young son a brief respite from his life jacket to take a trip to the bathroom. I jumped into the deep end of the pool and when I came up again I saw my husband at the other end of the pool lifting my son out by the shoulders. He caught him in time and everything was fine. But the thought of my son’s head slipping silently below the surface is etched in my brain forever. It’s done in seconds, even with two surgeons in the pool.
While I understand why the narrative surrounding many drowning prevention messages emphasizes parental vigilance and personal responsibility, the public health messages can’t stop there. Elected leaders, health departments, schools and community organizations must address the increase in drowning incidents. Parents of at-risk children need to be aware of the ever-present dangers of drowning.
Governor Charlie Baker made free swimming lessons available last summer and this summer, but he should expand access to free, quality swimming lessons year-round at local pools. Schools need to develop a water safety curriculum for children and become an information hub for parents and children alike. Coastguard-approved life jackets and child-sized buoyancy aids should be mandatory in all public pools and pools for anyone new to swimming, with the requirement that an adult be in the water with them. Public health messages need to be amplified on social media and traditional media so that all people involved with children are aware of the recent increase in drowning incidents.
Parents like Sipho cannot be asked to live in shame, since any security system that relies solely on human vigilance is bound to fail. We need voices like Sipho’s in the campaign for safer water for children. As you cool off in the water this summer, I urge you to honor Biko’s memory by sharing this information with friends and family. It only takes a second.
DR Cornelia Griggs is a pediatric surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and a surgical instructor at Harvard Medical School.