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Drowning is fast and silent and can happen in less than 2 inches of water – it can happen to anyone, anywhere,” Lisa McMullin says. “Drowning is the No. 1 cause of accidental death for young children, resulting in 27 percent more fatalities than car accidents.” McMullin, who lives in Ladue, lost her third child, Nicholas, at the age of 22 months in a drowning accident 36 years ago, and she recently embarked on an ambitious journey to help prevent such accidents. She talks about the beautiful day in the country that turned into a nightmare.

“Nicholas had just awakened from his morning nap at our family’s country home and was eager to join the group of children playing outside,” she recalls. “We were all out by the pool when he was brought up from the bottom. No one saw him fall into the water, including the eight adults who were there.”

Nicholas’ father, Kim McMullin, a former Navy diver, administered CPR. The toddler was then flown to St. Louis Children’s Hospital but nonetheless died, becoming another heart-wrenching addition to the horrifying statistics on childhood drowning. Through the years, McMullin’s faith helped her cope with losing a child. The couple had two more children (six in all, including Nicholas). Although she had practiced law in Boston for two years, McMullin decided after her first child was born to devote her life to being a stay-at-home mother, raising her children (and now, her seven grandchildren).

After Nicholas, her third child, was born, she and her husband moved to St. Louis to be near extended family. McMullin also started volunteering in the local community “to help make a difference,” serving on the boards of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the St. Louis Symphony, Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School and the St. Louis Public Library Foundation; she also chaired the board of the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis and received a 2008 Woman of Achievement Award. Three dozen years after that life-changing day, McMullin and her family have formed the SWIM ON (Safer Waters in Memory of Nicholas) Foundation to help make swimming safer for all children. “After we lost Nicholas, I thought a lot about drowning,” McMullin says, “and I didn’t want anyone else to go through what we were experiencing, but I was in the throes of nonstop parenting.”

McMullin says when her son Birch purchased a St. Louis franchise of the British Swim School several years ago, she was inspired to start the SWIM ON Foundation. “It was a gift to have Birch involved with the swim school and then for us to become involved,” she says. “We were horrified to learn that drowning is the leading cause of accidental death of children 1 to 4 and second for kids 5 to 9. Those numbers are particularly awful [because] everyone agrees that drowning is the most preventable accidental injury.”

She stresses that “drowning is not only the cause of accidental death but also is the cause of serious injury. Five times the number of children who die from drowning [are children who] go to the hospital from near-drowning. Half of those are admitted, sometimes for a lifelong disability from brain injury due to lack of oxygen under the water.”McMullin calls the SWIM ON Foundation her family’s “way of increasing awareness of the risks of drowning and to inform people about the importance of layers of protection.” Using the acronym SAFER, McMullin spells out the five layers of protection that can prevent drowning: swim lessons, adult supervision, fences (and other barriers), emergency response and regulation life jacket. She equates the importance of the five layers to the Swiss cheese model: “You build the safety in multiple layers, and they all need to be conscientiously utilized. Any layer or piece of Swiss cheese has holes. But if you have several pieces and layer them, you can eliminate the holes.”To carry out its mission, the SWIM ON Foundation developed brochures and a video for pediatricians that the McMullins hope will be used in doctors’ waiting rooms. McMullin also volunteers to speak to various groups about the importance of swim safety.

“As we move forward, we also hope to implement programs that will prevent drowning,” she says. “We have plans to make life vests more available to children, provide scholarships for swim lessons, and we are making Water Watcher badges that hang on lanyard necklaces. If you see a person wearing the badge, it’s a signal not to visit with that person because he is on duty.”

McMullin also hopes that next year she and her children will do a panel presentation at the annual conference of the nonprofit National Drowning Prevention Alliance on the lifetime effects of drowning on surviving siblings. “Drowning is devastating for the entire family,” she says. McMullin believes that if Nicholas had known how to roll over and float, someone would have seen him: “He would have been visible, able to breathe, and he could have called out. It would have bought crucial minutes and maybe seconds that could have saved his life.”

SWIM ON Foundation, swimonfoundation.org

An innate storyteller and award-winning photographer and writer, Alice Handelman provides Ladue News readers with a glimpse into lives that enrich St. Louis.