Soraya Morgynn Stevens loved water. Ever since her very first bath, she was always happiest splashing around in the tub, says her mother, Sophia Brizeus, 40, business support coordinator at Baptist Health Urgent Care Express in Palm Beach County. Ms Brizeus wanted Soraya to be able to enjoy swimming at her grandmother’s house, which had a swimming pool, so when Soraya was just 23 months old, she signed her up for swimming lessons. Tragically, Soraya drowned in her grandmother’s swimming pool, just a week before having her first lesson.
(Look now: Sophia Brizeus recounts the accidental drowning of her daughter, Soraya, in the family swimming pool. Video by George Carvalho.)
It was July 22, 2018, just another Sunday for the Brizeus family, who had gathered at Soraya’s grandmother’s house with friends and family from out of town. Soraya was inside with Sophia, and at one point her grandmother took her into the kitchen to give her some mashed potatoes, which the little girl loved.
With all the activity in the house, however, Soraya manages to slip out of the kitchen unnoticed. Mrs. Brizeus and her mother assumed she was with each other. Then, somehow, Soraya slipped out of the house and onto the patio. Within seconds, without anyone noticing, Soraya fell silently into the pool.
Mrs. Brizeus remembers hearing a heart-rending scream from the terrace. “It was really loud. I came out and saw my cousin, who is a nurse, running towards me. She was holding my daughter – my world, my heart – in her arms. I ran inside to retrieve my phone so I can call 911 and when I came out my cousin was performing CPR on her little body.
Ms. Brizeus does not remember the ambulance ride to the hospital. “I just remember sitting in the ER waiting room rocking back and forth. I remember seeing feet walk into the waiting room and someone say, “We’re sorry, your daughter didn’t survive. ”
And all of a sudden, instead of planning her daughter’s second birthday, Mrs Brizeus would have to turn to planning her funeral.
Florida has the highest child drowning rate
According to the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), drowning is one of the leading causes of death in children. More children between the ages of one and four die from drowning than from any other cause of death except birth defects, the CDC notes, and drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in young children, after road accidents.
In Florida, a state surrounded by water and where there are swimming pools, lakes and canals everywhere, the number of child drownings rose from 69 to 98 last year, and the Department of Children and Florida family says the state “loses more children under the age of five to drowning than any other state in the country. Additionally, for every child who dies from drowning, eight more receive emergency care for non-fatal or near drowning, which can cause brain damage and other serious long-term disabilities.
Survival swimming lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88%
Since that horrible day in 2018, Ms Brizeus says she has met many other parents who have lost children to drowning. “It’s a club you don’t want to be a member of,” she says. She has dedicated her free time to working as a swimming safety advocate, helping to raise awareness and prevention of drowning among children. She also started Facebook and Instagram groups, “Soraya’s Love Bugs,” to share drowning information and resources for parents interested in swimming lessons for their toddlers.
“I always called Soraya my ladybug from the moment I found out I was pregnant, before I even knew my baby was a girl,” says Ms Brizeus. “I had a ladybug theme for my baby shower and she was just my little ladybug – and she loved bugs, so that’s where the name came from.”
Noting that survival swimming lessons reduce children’s risk of drowning by 88%, Ms Brizeus says “Soraya’s Love Bugs” has links to organizations such as Infant Swimming Resource, which allows parents to enter their postcode and find certified ISR swim instructors in their area.
However, swimming lessons are not enough. Constant vigilance is required whenever a child is in or near water. “Children are curious and quick. They can be here for a minute and then you’re like, ‘Where did they go?’ You have to have someone watching the water at all times,” says Ms Brizeus.
Drowning often happens silently
According to Ms Brizeus, drowning is rarely accompanied by loud screams and frantic splashing, as is often portrayed in movies. “Drowning is quiet and quick and can happen in less than 30 seconds,” says Ms Brizeus, adding that a child can slip underwater without even causing a ripple. “A child could literally drown right in front of you and you might not even know it.”
According to the CDC, drowning can happen at any time, including when children are not supposed to be near water, such as when accessing swimming pools unsupervised. “Drowning does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, how old you are. However, it is 100% preventable,” Ms Brizeus reminds people. “By sharing my story, I hope to help at least one family not go through what we went through.”
Swim for Soraya
It’s never too early to start teaching your child to swim, or at the very least to stay afloat and keep their head above water, according to Ms Brizeus, whose seven-month-old daughter Destiny, just had his first survival. swimming lessons. “I call it Swim for Soraya,” she says. “I tell Destiny, ‘Okay, you’re going swimming for Soraya today,’ and we do.”
Ms. Brizeus is taking advantage of the heightened awareness generated by National Water Safety Awareness Month – and International Water Safety Day on May 15 – to raise awareness of the importance of swimming lessons in preventing drownings. She will be participating in an Instagram Live event hosted by Baptist Health on May 26and at 12 p.m., and June 4and she will support the annual “Splash Day” swim safety event, hosted by West Kendall Baptist Hospital, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Miccosukee Golf & Country Club.