June 10, 2018 is a day local mother Nicole Hughes plays over in her mind often.
Questions like, “How could this happen?” haunt her now one year later.
She describes it as a perfect day. Six families reunited under the roof of their vacation rental home in Fort Morgan, Alabama, right on the beach. A tradition each family, and all 17 kids looked forward to every year.
“He asked me every day, every day leading up to it, ‘We going to the beach? We go to the beach soon mom?” Nicole remembers of her three-year-old son Levi.
It was a day full of popsicles, swimming, snapping photos, sunshine, sand and smiles.
Never once did it cross Nicole’s mind that that day, June 10th, would be Levi’s last.
“I have gone back on repeat, I have grabbed my shoulders and said, ‘Turn around! How do you not see him?” asks Nicole.
All dressed up in his bright yellow crab hunting shirt, Levi was ready for a big night ahead.
“My husband flipped him upside down and kinda shook him and said, ‘Levi how many crabs are we gonna catch tonight?’ and he said, ‘So many dad!'” says Nicole.
The kids and parents were waiting for it to get dark, all together eating a snack in the same room.
Just seconds later, Levi would leave that room before anyone could notice.
The next thing Nicole saw from the balcony of the vacation home, just below her in the bottom of the pool, was a flash of yellow.
Down the stairs in seconds, Nicole pulled Levi from the water; confusion racking her brain as to how he got there. She knew just a minute before, he was sitting on the couch, surrounded by friends with his bowl of cheetos.
“I was so mad, I was so mad, how did he get out? How did I not see him get out the door?” asks Nicole.
Six physicians on the trip surrounded Levi from the moment he was pulled from the water. Those parents by his side, keeping him alive until he was airlifted to Mobile, Alabama.
Just hours later, Levi would pass away at the hospital.
Today, Levi’s mom still does not understand how it all happened so fast. She is now on a mission to educate parents across the world that drowning happens to real people, even to careful parents.
“We did it. We did everything we knew to do right. How did I not know how often drowning occurs during a non-swim time?” Nicole says.
Since that day, Nicole has worked to change that.
She helped re-write the American Academy of Pediatrics’ official policy on drowning prevention. At the time of Levi’s death, she was shocked at how little information was available to parents considering the statistics.
Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death for children ages one to four.
“It has to start with awareness. It has to. Real kids drown and it can happen in seconds. You never think this is gonna be you until it is,” Nicole says.
After her son died, she also created a non-profit in his memory, called “Levi’s Legacy.” They create “water guardian tags” for parents and caretakers to wear at the pool, a constant reminder to be alert when children are in or near water.
To this day, Nicole asks “Why?”
Why her son drowned when she presumably did everything right. She kept her kids in life jackets and puddle jumpers, warning them constantly to never go near the water without her.
She said even still, they were unaware how often drowning happens.
“But I just think, what if we had really, really known? I just believe it would have changed things,” Nicole says.
This is a message she wants every parent to hear: that drowning can happen to anyone.
“But the ways to prevent it are so doable. This is a no brainer. You can keep your child from drowning. You don’t want to drive back from the beach without one of your kids,” Nicole says.
On May 22 of this year, Nicole Hughes welcomed her fourth child, Willow Rosemary Hughes, into the world.
Her family continues to advocate for drowning prevention and water safety daily.
WHAT ARE LAYERS OF PROTECTION?
Nicole Hughes believes the number of drowning deaths nation-wide is so high because of the stigma. Many believe drowning only happens to parents who are neglectful or do not watch their children, making people think this will never happen to them.
One way to combat this is by instituting layers of protection.
“With a toddler, we are failing them. We are failing them by not giving them the resources to save themselves, by not having the awareness. There were zero layers of protection in place when Levi drowned. Zero. I had never heard of layers of protection, this was something I didn’t even know about,” says Nicole.
The most important layer of protection that a child can take with them anywhere is knowing how to swim. She says we need more infant, toddler and survival swimming lessons in the region.
Other important layers of protection include having a designated water guardian at all times, always wearing life jackets and having a four-sided fence surrounding every pool.