Drowning prevention requires awareness
In 2019, Doug Forbes and Elena Matyas lost their six-year-old daughter Roxie to drowning. It happened at a summer day care program. According to reports from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Roxie drowned during her morning pool time. A camp counselor outside the pool area spotted Roxie floating face down in the water. The four lifeguards on duty missed it.
When Roxie drowned, her parents drowned with her, they said, and in the years since then, they’ve done a lot of soul searching. It seemed that every safeguard was in place. Where did they go wrong? What can we, as a society do to prevent these preventable tragedies? The conclusions they came to were surprising.
They told their story at the 2021 virtual National Water Safety Conference.
It started with a phone call.
“The assistant camp director said, ‘Elena, there’s been an accident. Go directly to Huntington Hospital,’” Matyas recalled. “I saw an ambulance and two police cars and a fire truck. It was a motorcade. And I knew. I knew at that moment.”
Doug Forbes, Roxie’s father, says his wife ran to the ambulance and “let out a scream that I will never forget in my life.” “We left Roxie like the most beautiful child that she is -- gorgeous blonde hair, sparkling eyes and beautiful complexion. And in 40 minutes, she was bloated, blue, no response.”
While doctors were able to get her heart beating, they said she had lost all brain function. The following day they took her off life support.
“I loved being Roxie’s mom,” Matyas said. “She was joy. I was so proud of her. She made my life complete. I thought I was making careful decisions in her best interest. Like millions of other parents, I enrolled her in a summer day care program, trusting others with her care. On a sunny Friday morning, the life I knew ended. Now, every moment is a battle for survival. I’m treading through a riptide that won’t let go.”
She can picture Roxie singing with her kindergarten class.
“The chorus of Cielito Lindo echoes in my head,” Matyas said.
For Roxie’s father, the pain has been excruciating.
“I feel like I’ve been left to slowly sink to the bottom of a deep dark ocean. Roxie Mirabel Forbes was the air in my lungs, the stars, the moon, the sun, the immense joy in my heart. She was six-years-old when the water ate her alive. Six-years-old, suffering second after second, minute after minute. You don’t live past that as a parent. You live with that. You live inside that,” Forbes said.
Time and again, Roxie’s parents have relived that day, trying to understand what went wrong.
“We entrusted this camp with the care of our child,” Matyas said. “That’s our guilt.”
But what about the camp? There were 30 campers, supervised by four counselors who were on lifeguard duty that day — all Red Cross-certified, camp officials told parents.
On the first day, the camp tested all the campers’ swimming abilities. Roxie was designated a “nonswimmer,” Forbes said. On the second day of camp, Matyas asked the camp’s director about pool safety. The director assured the family they would keep a close watch on their daughter.
With four lifeguards on duty, why didn’t anyone see that Roxie was in trouble?
“After our daughter drowned, we asked ourselves, why are children are in charge of life saving? How are 15, 16 and 17-year-old adolescents best suited for this profound responsibility?” Matyas said.
To help them think about this question, they’ve reached out to a variety of experts. Among them, they spoke to Dr Frank Pia, a lifetime lifeguard and drowning prevention expert.
“For many of these adolescents, this is their first job,” Pia said. “But they don’t understand that if they make a mistake, they don’t get a second shot. If they are working in the fast-food industry and they make a mistake – no big deal. But with lifeguarding, if they decide to take themselves out of the surveillance system for a minute and somebody goes under, well…” Forbes said hiring adolescents as lifeguards has been a matter of simple utility, dating back to the 1930’s.
“Beaches needed lifeguards from May through August, but who would be available for this sort of seasonal job at minimum wage?
Answer: young people on a break from school. There is no evidence that anyone looked into whether these young people were cognitively equipped for such a weighty role,” Forbes said.
Roxie’s parents think that associations like the American Red Cross have facilitated using adolescents as lifeguards.
According to Matyas, in 2000, the minimum age for lifeguarding was 16, but after the Red Cross lobbied the government, the Department of Labor allowed the employment of 15-year-olds as lifeguards under certain conditions.
“And those conditions were that the lifeguards be trained and certified first and foremost by the Red Cross.”
“Each time a 15-year-old was certified, the Red Cross received more revenue. They suddenly created more demand for 15-year-old lifeguards, and they were the financial beneficiaries of that demand,” Forbes said.
Meanwhile, many associations, such as the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and the United States Lifesaving Association maintained that the lifeguarding age should stay at 16.
“But no one seemed to have any data to say why 16 but not 15. Why not 14?” Forbes said.
In 2011, the American Red Cross, YMCA and United States Lifesaving Association ran a study to see if their best practices aligned with science. According to Forbes, their conclusion was that more research was needed on an age requirement. They never produced that research.
“We all agree we could use more research about lifeguards, and yet, these aquatics organizations with an abundance of assets have chosen not to do the research. We go on trusting adolescents with our lives based on organizations that have offered no scientific proof that we should,” Matyas said.
But there is evidence that teenagers may not be the best candidates for lifeguarding, Forbes and Matyas say. They cite Dr. Adriana Galvan, a UCLA neuroscientist who studies the adolescent brain, as part of that evidence.
Dr. Galvan says that the prefrontal cortex is the last brain region to develop, continuing to change into the mid 20’s.
“The reason this is relevant is because the prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that helps you think about the consequences, or potential consequences, of your actions before you do them. So, it makes sense that if this part of your brain isn’t fully available until well past adolescence, then teenagers may make more impulsive decisions with less regard for the potential future consequences,” Galvan says.
This is part of why Forbes and Matyas think it is time to take a different look at drowning prevention.
“We don’t talk enough or research enough about why we enable processes that have negative outcomes,” Forbes said. “We implore you, we beg you to put us out of business. The only reason we are in business is because our beloved six-year-old Roxie died from a wholly preventable drowning. The very thought of more Roxies suffering the same outcome is enough to keep us up at nights.”
Roxie Forbes, Photo credit: Doug Forbes and Elena Matyas, her loving parents.