Like most parents, Nikki Combs, an elementary school teacher and mom of two, often looks to the internet for information on parenting and child safety. “I make fun of Facebook all the time, how it sucks up hours of my life,” she laughs. Little did she know, a story she found online a couple of years ago ultimately led to saving her son’s life.
On April 3, 2015, Combs and her husband Troy took their daughter Addison and their son Keegan (who were 7 and 3.5 at the time) to a friend’s house for a spring break pool party.
“The kids were swimming and having a great time,” Combs remembers. “We were all in the water with them. The kids have basic swimming skills but we were right by their side to be safe. Keegan was playing in the jacuzzi and as he swam across, he opened up his mouth too soon as he surfaced and swallowed a big gulp of water.”
Combs says Keegan coughed hard after they pulled him from the pool, but seemed fine and even continued to play in the water. Although he seemed tired after they returned home, they attributed it to a long day of swimming and being in the sun. It wasn’t until later that evening that she and her husband started to become concerned.
“I heard him coughing through the baby monitor in his room. It was persistent coughing and he sounded like he was wheezing and having trouble breathing. At that moment something clicked and an article that I had read on Facebook a year ago flashed in my head,” Combs says.
The doctor literally rolled his eyes and said it was probably a coincidence and (my son) just had a virus.
That article was on secondary drowning, a condition where water is swallowed and enters the lungs. Although it’s rare—it accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of all drowning incidents—it can be fatal because symptoms are delayed (1 to 24 hours after the incident) and often overlooked.
After looking up the symptoms and seeing that the first three were lethargy, cough and fever, Combs ran to her son’s room. “I felt his head and he was on fire. He had a temp of 102.”
While her husband stayed home with their daughter, Combs raced Keegan to the nearest emergency room. After waiting for hours to see a doctor, her concerns that her son was suffering from secondary drowning were met with indifference.
“The doctor said he had never heard of it,” Combs recalls. “I told him about the article I had read and how he had all of the symptoms. He literally rolled his eyes and said it was probably a coincidence and he just had a virus. "
“I told him I wasn't comfortable leaving until he was positive he was OK because I had read that it could be fatal, and he said ‘What do you want me to do? I'll do an X-ray if it makes you feel better.’”
Combs persisted and she’s glad she did.
“The doctor did an X-ray of his lungs and about an hour later he came back, white as a ghost. He said, ‘I'm so sorry. You were right and he needs to be admitted right away. An ambulance is on the way. We are trying to find a PICU that can take him.'”
After rushing Keegan to a hospital at 4 a.m., he was admitted to the PICU where he was diagnosed with pneumonitis, or inflammation of the lungs. His temperature had shot up to 104 and his blood oxygen levels were low.
Watch for symptoms any time your child has been in water, even if you didn't see them swallow any water.
"He was very wheezy and weak. They monitored his breathing and had him on IV fluids and antibiotics to fight the infection,” she recalls. Although he was released the next day, he had to make another visit to the ER when his fever hadn’t subsided. Keegan finally recovered after five days.
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Since then, Combs has tried to raise awareness of secondary drowning. “My advice for other parents is to watch for symptoms any time your child has been in water, even if you didn't see them swallow any water,” she warns. “Sudden lethargy, fever and coughing should definitely be taken seriously."
“Also, speak up and don't let doctors who know nothing about secondary drowning blow you off without doing all tests necessary," she continues. "Listen to your instincts! Parents know when something isn't right. If you think there's a problem, get help. It's better to be safe than sorry."