Saving one life changes four

Published 12:05 am Friday, July 8, 2022

SALISBURY — No matter how much training lifeguards get, the hope is that they never have to use it.

But Wednesday afternoon, the four lifeguards on duty at Fred M. Evans pool on Old Concord Road had their training tested unexpectedly when a young mother and father raced into the pool entryway carrying their limp and unconscious 3-year-old son.

The team of lifeguards immediately sprang into action, making sure 9-1-1 had been called then placing the child on the padded pool deck, breaking open an ice pack and applying it, alternating between his head and his abdomen to moderate his body temperature, and raising his head to improve breathing and reduce the chance of choking.

Sierra Braun, 21 and one of two head lifeguards on duty at the time, said she did not actually think about what to do, she just acted.

“The 9-1-1 operator called back and was giving us instructions that we followed, but no one of us really took the lead, we just acted as a team,” she said. She and fellow head lifeguard Malakie Harris, 17, and lifeguards Lucie Featherstone, 20, and Lucas Berg, 16, split into pairs, two tending to the child’s panicked mother, and two working with the boy.

Braun said it was not long, a minute or two, before the child began to cry, but that initially “he was completely unresponsive, I mean his head was limp and his eyes were closed, and his dad was talking to him but he was not reacting at all.”

When he began to revive, Braun said she was “insanely relieved. Because I was really, really scared. I didn’t want this child to pass away, we were trying so hard to help him. I was afraid for his life. It was really intense in those moments.”

When paramedics, who arrived in about five minutes, had gotten the child into the ambulance, Braun said they came back to make sure they had collected all of their gear, and “they let us know that the boy was already doing much better, and that they were taking him to the hospital and he was going to be OK.”

“I’ve managed hundreds of lifeguards over my career, and I have never had such a seamlessly run, coordinated team,” said Megan Simpson, the recreation coordinator for Salisbury Parks & Recreation Department. “Every year when we evaluate them for re-hire, we ask them what they consider the best team they’ve ever been a part of, and I tell them they can choose anything — a sports team, a class, anything, and every time they say, ‘No, it’s us, we are a family team here.’ ”

Currently, because staffing is limited and there must be sufficient lifeguard coverage for safety, the pool operates on a block system, with swimming times broken into almost two-hour increments. At the time of the emergency, Simpson said the pool was just getting ready to start a new block of swim time at 3 p.m.

She noted that the family had come to the pool from Family Dollar, where they reportedly had purchased equipment for the pool, such as swim floats and towels, and as they pulled into the parking lot, realized the child was having a seizure of some sort due to underlying health issues and possible dehydration.

“They ran their child into the pool to get the medical attention they knew we could offer,” Simpson said. “I want to emphasize that the lifeguards we employ range in age from 16 to 21. These city employees are put through lifeguard, first aid and AED (automated external defibrillator) training courses, and then they serve as first responders of our pool.” She said that she and Nick Aceves, director of Parks & Recreation, immediately went to the facility when they were notified of the incident, but the four lifeguards already had the situation in hand.

“I talked with them, to make sure they were OK, including emotionally, because that is a lot to take in,” Simpson said. “They told me they’d already talked to each other and were OK. I mean they said their heart rates were up and they were feeling it, but when I told them we could call in another lifeguard not on duty to cover if they needed to have time, all four of them stayed. We closed at 7:50 and they stayed to finish clean-up and were here til about 8:15, finishing the shift.”

Both Simpson and Braun said that though all four lifeguards were shaken by the crisis, it is something they will take with them forever, and their lives are now changed because of it, if only a little.

And in any other place, the situation might have gone very differently.

Nationwide, Simpson said, many pools have struggled to adequately staff pools with lifeguards and have had to either close or substantially reduce hours.

“We have some of the lowest fees out there, and yet, the staff we have show up every day, ready to work, and they do it exceeding all expectations. Can you imagine what the outcome might have been if we had to close for the day because we didn’t have enough staff and the family, coming in from out of town, didn’t know that? Fortunately, our reliable staff was there and able to give this child, and his family, the medical attention and the help they needed.”

Braun said the incident, while frightening, “makes me feel a lot better” about the future. “I was proud of myself, knowing that in an emergency situation, I can do what needs to be done and not be distracted.”