Nurse works to prevent childhood drowning after son’s death
18-month-old Jackson James Bennett climbed through the dog door to his backyard. He toddled up to the edge of his family’s pool and into the water.
“I don’t know if he jumped in intentionally because he remembered all the fun times we had in the pool together as a family, or maybe he was reaching for a toy and he accidentally fell in — I don’t know,” said Jackson’s mother, Jenny Bennett.
Bennett spent two years pining over the circumstances of her son’s death in 2016: from the pet door accidentally left unlocked, to the lack of fencing around the pool. She was reluctant to tell her story.
“I was afraid people were going to judge me for being a bad parent,” Bennett said. “But, I came to the realization that this happens far too often, and we need to do something about it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related deaths in children 1 to 4 years old in the United States. Every year from 2007 to 2017, drowning has accounted for approximately 30% of injury-related deaths among this age group.
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In addition to being a parent, Bennett is also a registered nurse at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball.
“She’s the mom of four and loves taking care of children and is passionate for keeping them safe,” said Stacy Thornton, director of community relations for the north quadrant at HCA Houston Healthcare.
Bennett spoke during the Tomball Health Academy’s Water and Summer Safety for Kids of All Ages seminar held at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball on May 16.
“Children who are less than 30 pounds can drown in less than 30 seconds,” Bennett said.
She presented statistics from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services showing that 91 children fatally drowned in Texas last year. In 2019, she said 13 children had fatally drowned in Texas as of April 25.
“But since I made this slide, three more children have drowned,” Bennett said.
The chance of drowning spikes between Memorial and Labor Day, she said, and a few simple steps can reduce drowning risks:
Barriers — Self-latching pool fences, pool nets and covers can prevent small children from accessing the water.
Clean up — Remove toys from the pool area when not in use. A child may be tempted to approach or enter the pool if toys are left in the water.
Coast Guard-approved life jackets — Children are legally required to wear life vests on open water, Bennett said, and most children who drown in boating accidents weren’t using life jackets.
Secure doors and windows — Bennett urges parents against pet doors, even pet doors with a lock and a second door. Installing door alarms and high locks can help prevent children from wandering outside unsupervised.
Indoor water dangers — Just a couple inches of water presents a drowning hazard for children. Bathtubs, buckets and even toilets are dangerous for unsupervised kids.
CPR — Learn how to perform CPR on children. After a drowning incident, children who receive immediate CPR have better survival and recovery outcomes, Bennett said. HCA Houston Healthcare locations offer infant CPR classes.
Water-sensing alarms — Parents can buy alarms that may be worn by children or placed in the side of the pool to sense a change in water elevation. The alarms indicate that their child may have entered the pool.
Supervision — Bennett encourages adults to designate “water watchers,” who act as life guards in alternating shifts. During a water watching shift, the adult does not use cell phones, converse with friends, or engage in any potential distractions.
“You’re just paying attention to those kids because drowning is fast, and drowning is silent,” Bennett said. “It’s not like the movies. The kids are not going to be splashing and yelling for help — they simply just go under the water.”
Survival Swimming Lessons — Survival swimming lessons teach children self-rescue techniques such as how to float and swim to exit the pool, even when fully clothed. Bennett said children should begin these lessons at 1 year old.
“This life-saving skill would have saved my son. ...He would have been able to float for that five minutes that we were gone,” Bennett said.
A few Houston area programs she recommends include Infant Swimming Resource, Infant Aquatics, Texas Swim Academy in Katy and Life Savers Survival Swim. She said an ISR instructor will be teaching survival swimming at Tomball Sports Medicine in September.
Bennett launched the Northwest Houston Chapter of Swim Safe Forever, a 501c3 offering financial assistance to families that need help paying for their child’s survival swimming lessons.
“Thanks to a grant received from the Tomball Regional Health Foundation, her organization was able to fund 20 scholarships this year,” Thornton said.
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Bennett also established Parents Preventing Childhood Drowning, an organization comprised of entities nationwide dedicated to drowning prevention awareness.
Through her efforts, Bennett has brought drowning prevention resources to the community, including swim lesson scholarships and educational materials for patients at HCA Houston Healthcare facilities.
“Her story is inspirational,” said Eric Evans, CEO of HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball. “She’s been an inspiration to me. We’re so happy to partner with her on this initiative.”
Sharing her story
The story she’d been hesitant to share has now become an opportunity to spread drowning prevention awareness.
Jackson James Bennett was born on Dec. 23, 2014.
“He was the most social, smart, active boy,” Bennett said. “He lit up the room and everybody said he gave the best hugs. He really did.”
In July 2016, Bennett got her children ready to pick up her husband from work. About to head out the door with Jackson on her hip, she realized the dogs had not been outside in a few hours.
The dog door usually stayed locked and had a second door that closed on top — precautions Bennett took realizing the danger an unsecured pet door posed for a toddler.
“This evening I was too impatient to wait for the dogs to go potty, so I opened the dog door and we all left the house,” Bennett said.
The family returned together about five minutes before bedtime. Exhausted, Bennett left Jackson with her husband so she could rest briefly before starting the kids’ bedtime routine.
“I got a weird feeling inside that I needed to go find Jackson,” Bennett said.
Her husband said Jackson was upstairs playing with his sisters. So, she went back into her room to lay down.
“This time, I left the door open,” Bennett said. “I think another minute had gone by and I realized I couldn’t hear him.”
Her husband asked their daughters if Jackson was with them. Bennett remembers them yelling back in unison, “No.”
“That’s when my heart sank, and I remember that I forgot to close the dog door when we got home,” Bennett said.
Bennett found her son floating face down in the pool. Having been a nurse for nine years, she knew to begin CPR immediately. Since his body was still warm and his lips were pink, she was hopeful Jackson could be revived. He was brought to HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball.
“We got a pulse back and he was flown downtown to the Med Center,” Bennett said.
After several days, Jackson was declared braindead.
“I’m not sharing my story for sympathy,” Bennett said. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, but I want you to learn from my mistakes, and I want you to hear that this tragedy happens to real people, and it happens to good parents.”
Standing in the hospital courtyard after her son passed away, Bennett watched a Donate Life Flag ascend the flagpole in honor of Jackson, whose organs were donated.
“A seven-month-old little boy in Seattle, Washington was getting his heart — the heart had entered the OR at that exact time,” Bennett said.
She looks forward to meeting the little boy and his family this summer.