Heather Barger sits at her daughter’s bedside every day and prays.
The 15-month-old, only 29 inches tall, lays mostly unresponsive on a hospital bed, hooked to a feeding tube. Doctors and nurses walk in and out, smiling and talking to each other. Barger feels frozen.
She looks at Royal Dampier and can’t see her baby-tooth smile or hear her laugh. She can’t pick her up or have her lay on her chest like she would before — there are too many tubes and wires. Sometimes, Royal will squeeze her fingers, reflexively.
Sometimes she cries, tears silently rolling down her face. Doctors tell Barger that Royal can’t feel what is going on, but it’s still painful to watch.
Barger’s baby was rushed to Mease Dunedin Hospital, and then driven to St. Joseph’s Hospital, on July 22, after she was found floating in the family’s Clearwater pool. Doctors told her the baby wouldn’t make it. But 24 hours passed, then 48, then 72.
It took less than three minutes for Royal to slip through a crack in the door. She was in the water for less than two.
She’s been in the hospital for three weeks and counting.
“We know she’s going to survive,” said Barger, 33. “We just don’t know how much of her we’re going to get back.”
Risk for Children
Drowning is the main cause of preventable child deaths in Florida, according to the state’s child abuse death review committee. In 2018, 88 children died from drowning, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Hillsborough County had 11 deaths, the most in the state and a dramatic jump from the year before.
To prevent child drowning, the Florida Department of Health recommends three layers of protection: constant supervision, physical barriers to the pool or bodies of water and emergency preparedness, which includes swimming lessons. Lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent, according to the department’s WaterSmartFL team. Candice Jones, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said kids can start lessons as young as 1 year old.
Jones said even a minute without oxygen can be harmful to a child’s brain. Resuscitation should be as quick and effective as possible, so Jones recommends CPR lessons for adults in the house.
She said children may see some lasting effects depending on how long they spent in the water, but many do recover.
In 2017 in Florida there were 107 non-fatal hospitalizations due to near-drownings. Most were ages 1 to 4.
Paul Harch, a doctor in New Orleans and director of the Louisiana State University Hyperbaric Medicine & Wound Care Department, received critical acclaim in 2017 after using hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is a combination of increased pressure and increased oxygen, to treat a child who nearly drowned. The girl had her brain volume grow by at least 14 percent, he said. He had first treated a child with the same method in 1989.
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Harch said in a standard water immersion situation, a child doesn’t get treatment in the hospital, instead they get supportive care while they recover.
Though he said there’s no accepted treatment, he believes his work can change the fate of the children. Still, the treatment is rare and hard to access. He gets hundreds of patients traveling to New Orleans to see him, he said.
When the brain injury happens, part of the brain dies and some is injured. The injured, but not dead, tissue is what Harch’s work focuses on.
“It has dramatic potential to alter the course of these kids lives,” he said. “And the evidence is there to at least try it.”
‘Never pictured it in our family’
The pool had always been a happy place for Barger’s family in Clearwater. They held barbecues and had friends over to swim. Her 7-year-old, whom the family calls Tootie, was “like a little fish.”
For years, Barger had lectured Tootie and her older children, ages 18, 17, 13, about how important it was to close the back door to the pool. She showed them stories about kids who had drowned and warned, look, this is why we’re careful. Their friends knew, too, that when you were at the pool, you shut the door.
She had three locks put on the doors to outside and ADT alarms set up to tell her when doors were open. She and her husband, Roy Dampier, had talked about adding a fence around the pool as another layer of security.
The day Royal fell in, Barger had just gotten home from work and was making hamburger patties in the kitchen. She had given Royal Ruffles chips, the baby’s favorite, to snack on.
Her oldest daughter had a friend over, and the two were swimming. Barger popped out to the car for less than three minutes to get her things, not knowing her daughter’s friend had left the door open a crack.
She knew her daughter was safe with the older kids.
Then Tootie started screaming for help and lifted Royal out of the water gently, the toddler limp in her small arms. Barger, who works in home healthcare, started performing CPR and yelled for her kids to call 911. Even as she pressed on her daughter’s chest and saw water come up, Barger worried she was somehow making things worse.
Her son, 18, fell to the ground and screamed.
“You hear about this all the time,” Barger said. “We just never pictured this in our family.”
For 10 days, the entire family slept in a St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital room while they waited for updates. Roy Dampier, a truck driver, was in Georgia and drove overnight to be back in town. Neither he nor Barger has been back to work in the weeks since.
Royal’s recovery is slow and unsure. Doctors found pneumonia and a sepsis infection. They wondered about a blood clot, but tests came back negative. Her white blood count is up, which may indicate another infection.
Any progress is progress, Barger says, like the fact they briefly unhooked Royal from the ventilator and she showed positive signs.
Still, when Royal comes home, she’ll need a nurse and around-the-clock care. To cover expenses, the family has a GoFundMe that has raised more than $3,000.
“I want her to have quality of life,” Barger said. “I want her to run, jump, play.”
The summer was supposed to be joyful. Barger’s sixth child, another girl, is due in September. Royal was excited for her new sibling, pointing at her mother’s stomach, or sometimes her own, and saying “bebé!”
These days, Tootie, who found Royal, plays with Barbies and tells the dolls to watch out for the pool. When her mother tells her she’s a hero, she cries and says she isn’t.
At the hospital, while Barger sits and waits for updates from doctors, her phone lights up with messages of support and prayer from friends and family.
She changed her phone background after the accident.
Now, it’s a saved photo from after Royal had a cold, Barger with Royal resting on her chest, with the words “My baby’s feeling better.”
The GoFundMe for Royal Dampier can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/baby-royals-medical-fund
Advice on how to prevent drowning from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Never leave a child alone or in the care of another child around water
- When infants and toddlers are in the pool, an adult who can swim should provide touch supervision and never remove their sight from the child
- Assign a water watcher who is not looking at anything other than the kids. Do not look at phones, drink alcohol, etc.
- Install a 4-foot-tall fence around the entire pool to separate it from the house
- Consider pool alarms and supportive, weight-bearing pool covers in addition to fencing but do not substitute them for proper layers of protection
- Parents, caregivers and older adolescents should learn CPR and keep a telephone and rescue equipment by the pool.
- Put children through swim lessons and ensure adults in the house know how to swim. Teach children they cannot swim without adult supervision.
- When visiting a place with a pool, assess the locks and doors
- Have small children wear life jackets. Do not have them wear “floaties," which are not a safety aid
- Local YMCAs
- Clearwater’s Long Center has lessons for $10. If someone cannot afford the lessons the center offers flexible pricing.
- St. Petersburg Parks & Recreation
- City of Pinellas Park
- City of Dunedin
- City of Largo
- City of Seminole
- City of Tampa