My three year old son drowned in a swimming pool with adults around

Chezik Tsunoda on water safety, why black and brown children are more likely to drown, and how his son’s death fueled his desire to fight the silent epidemic of childhood drowning.

Throughout the summer, families flock to the beach or local pools to escape the heat and play in the water. Few people consider these entertainment venues to be a serious risk. Yet according to the Canadian Hospital Injury Reporting and Prevention Program, children 9 years of age or younger accounted for the largest percentage of drownings and near-drownings over the past decade, at 80%.

In 2018, Chezik Tsunoda, a mother of four, experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when her preschooler, three-year-old Yori, drowned in a family friend’s swimming pool. Since then, she has devoted her life to preventing infant drowning. We spoke to Tsunoda about the devastating loss of her son and how she uses her non-profit organization No More Under and documentary film, Drown in silenceto raise awareness of this often overlooked issue.

When tragedies such as child drownings occur, there is a tendency to make certain assumptions about the parents. How would you describe your approach to parenthood, before and after Yori’s death?

I was a very careful parent and I still am a very careful parent. I had all things baby proof, all electrical outlet covers and baby gates. I always checked with my pediatrician about important things to watch out for with my children.

What about your philosophy on water safety in particular? Was it important to you that your children learn to swim?

I had my children take swimming lessons and I understood that they had to learn to swim. In the summer, I always traveled with life jackets in the trunk of my car because we live by the water and often go to the beach.

I have never been in the water with all my children alone. I remember once my friends asked me to go swimming and I said, “I can’t come because I have all my children with me and I don’t have any helpers.” I understood that I needed help. That’s why I never thought that one of my children could drown, because I was someone who was safe around water and safe in general.

How was Yori?

He had a great big personality. He was just hilarious and wanted to make people laugh. He was also very fond of airplanes. He had a year-long calendar, an airplane calendar, and he just studied and looked at them and it was like his favorite book. He could name any airplane – he would look at an airplane and say, “Hey, that’s a P52! only three years old. He was a really affectionate child, he loved to snuggle up, have fun and loved cuddles. Handsome kid. Beautiful hair. Amazing smile.

Can you tell us about the day he drowned?

We were at a friend’s house. The kids were all playing in the backyard pool and the dads were there too, hanging out and playing. And then suddenly, one of the kids saw Yori. He was floating at the top, face down. We took it out and we attempted CPR. When the first responders arrived, they worked on him for quite a while, then took him to the hospital, and we waited. Then at one point he just wasn’t responding so he was declared brain dead.

After Yori’s death, you created a non-profit organization called No more under to raise awareness of child drowning. What does the organization do?

We talk about education, awareness and access. We educate families about drowning statistics, things you can do, and tools you can have that will help you swim safely and be safe around water. Also recognizing that many families have barriers, whether it be ability barriers or cultural barriers, that prevent them from accessing the pool.

We strive to make the joy and life-saving skills of swimming accessible to everyone. The four things we really focus on are the importance of life vest; Water Watchers, which refers to someone who will focus on the pool or open water; swimming lessons; and CPR. These are things that would have potentially saved Yori.

We do things like set up life jacket loan stations in our community to make sure that when people go to the beach, they have access to it. We also offer free swimming lessons for children. And we’re working with our local pediatricians to make sure they have the drowning conversation.

You said that child drowning particularly affects black families.

Black and brown children are three to five times more likely to drown than their white counterparts. This is largely generational, and it is due to systemic racism because until the 1960s, the swimming pools were still separated. And when they were desegregated, some of the pools closed and private pools opened, meaning only people who could afford memberships and country clubs could swim. It’s generational in that statistics show that if your grandparents couldn’t swim, you’re more likely to be unable to swim either.

Tell us about your documentary, Drown in silence. It must have taken incredible strength to turn such tragedy into advocacy.

About a year after Yori died, I knew I had to do something. I had to make sure it wouldn’t happen to anyone else. The film medium is really powerful in that it can reach the masses and I happen to have a background in production.

I started by interviewing Yori’s pediatrician. Then I slowly started reaching out to other people, parents and families who had a similar experience, and everything fell into place. I really feel like it was meant to be.

And so the movie is two-fold: it’s a great legacy for my son and the other kids who are in the movie and their families, and it’s also just a great vehicle for viewers to take a look at this violent epidemic of drowning and the consequences of losing a child to drowning.

What should every parent of a young child know about drowning?

I don’t want to scare people – I don’t want drowning to be something you fear, because the water is beautiful and swimming is fun, it’s a form of exercise and it’s a skill to life. But I would say know: before you go and don’t take your eyes off your family. Because it can unfortunately happen to anyone. And it’s fast. It’s incredibly fast and it’s incredibly quiet. In movies, people splash around and say, “Help! Help!” In reality, it was eerily quiet.

And talk to your kids about it and teach them to always ask permission before entering. If every time your child gets in the pool, they say, “Hey, Mom, I’m getting ready to get in the water. Are you okay?” then your attention will be focused there. Because that is what is happening. In my case, we just weren’t really paying attention, but a lot of parents say their child was napping or doing whatever and then they escaped and went into the water.

No one thinks this will happen to them. How to overcome this and communicate with other parents?

In the time it takes you to read and respond to a text message, your child may drown. That’s how it happens fast. Drowning is one of those things that you can easily prevent just by keeping your eyes open. It’s not brain surgery, we can do it. We are not waiting for a cure. It’s just watching our children closely.

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