A Final Goodbye: Mother Shares Her Journey to Making Son's Tragic Drowning Death Matter
As summer draws to a close, one mother shares her journey to making her son’s tragic drowning death matter.
By Ashley Antle
Ten years ago this week, Connor Gage blew his mother a kiss as he left for a friend’s birthday party at a rented lakehouse. Little did either of them know, it would be the last kiss he’d ever give her and the last time Dana Gage would see what she calls her son’s “1000-watt smile.”
Hours later, Connor drowned in a swimming incident that was 100% preventable. He was 15 years old.
“He was funny,” Gage said describing her son. “He was a Justin Bieber doppelganger. He was silly. He loved to run. He was smart. He loved his friends. He was his brother’s best friend. He was a great writer. That boy was creative. Even at a young age, his mind bent toward the art of great storytelling.”
Connor was no stranger to lake life, either. His family owned a lakehouse and spent many summer days on the water boating, swimming, tubing and wakeboarding. Even though both of their boys were great swimmers, Brett and Dana Gage were cautious. Wearing a life jacket was non-negotiable. “Toe in, vest on,” they would always say.
Dana Gage assumed every family did the same.
“The biggest mistake of my life was assuming everyone else had the same rule,” she said. “I never asked. That mistake changed my life forever.”
As the sun began to set over the lake on Aug. 31, 2012, the teen boys attending the party were given permission to jump into the water from a high boat dock. None of them were wearing life vests.
At 7:30 p.m., Gage received a text from Connor: “jumping in, brb.” About an hour later, Connor flipped from the dock, landed badly and never resurfaced. It took a dive team 45 minutes to locate and pull his body from the water.
After attempts to resuscitate him, Connor was pronounced dead just five hours after blowing his mother that final kiss in the driveway.
“Connor died at age 15, just as he was starting his freshman year of high school, and just as he was turning the corner from boyhood to manhood,” Gage said. “There’s truly no way to describe it. We’d worked so hard, my husband and I, so long, so intentionally to get to this point. We’d been married 20 years. Our two teenage boys were now a freshman and junior in high school. Best friends who just happened to be brothers running on the same varsity cross country team.
"The future was so bright, and it was a magical time. All the pieces of our family’s puzzle were fitting together perfectly, and we were just so expectant. So eager for this incredible chapter in our family’s life. The best was yet to come. Until, that day. That Friday when our perfect family puzzle got blown to pieces.”
LiVe and LoVe Buoyantly
In the 10 years since Connor’s death, Dana and her family have been working hard to heal their broken hearts and make their suffering matter. As much as the family wants to bring awareness to how Connor died, they also want to honor how he lived. They say Connor lived and loved buoyantly—always full of joy and life—and want to give others a chance to do the same. Just two months after Connor’s death, the Gage family started The LV Project to help others “LiVe and LoVe buoyantly on the water and in life.”
“Something amazing happens when life deals you an unimaginable blow,” Gage said. “Suddenly, everything becomes incredibly clear. The things that matter, matter more. And the things that don’t, don’t.
"I’ve talked about this a lot with other grieving moms, and we all agree that this remarkable clarity is a rare silver lining among the dark clouds of despair. Soul-crushing heartbreak can be a way-paver to crystal vision. At least it was for me. The color in my world was gone, but the resulting black and white view was profoundly crisp. No ambiguity. No fog. No nonsense.
"As I began to acclimate to this new life lens, one fact became indisputably clear: Connor should not have died on August 31, 2012. It was so preventable. So unnecessary. So wrong. This wasn’t an accident. This was 100% preventable. I decided to do something about it. I immediately quit my job in corporate America, and I started The LV Project.”
During the summer months, The LV Project raises awareness about drowning prevention and advocates for the use of life vests on lakes. Had Connor been wearing a life vest, even with an injury, he would have resurfaced and could have been rescued quickly for a chance at survival.
Once the lake and swimming season is over, The LV Project turns its attention to helping people who need a lift in their everyday lives through what Gage calls life buoyancy projects. The LV Project has funded the construction of a soccer field in Ghana for West African children rescued from trafficking, for example. Closer to home, The LV Project has completed projects with several Dallas/Fort Worth-area organizations to help support their missions, including Achieve DFW, The Gatehouse, Project ELF Dallas and many more.
Gage is also a friend and supporter of the Lifeguard Your Child program through the Center For Children’s Health, led by Cook Children’s. She has shared Connor’s story at several Lifeguard Your Child events, helping the program bring awareness to the dangers teens face in open water and the easy steps parents can take to protect and save their lives.
The X Effect
When Gage started The LV Project, she first went to work pouring over drowning data. She knew Connor was one of many who had lost their life to a preventable drowning death, and she wanted the numbers to help her make a case beyond her own experience for the importance of life vests. The LV Project needed a clear target for their mission. What they got is what Gage calls The X Effect.
“You know that saying, ‘you can’t hit a target you can’t see?’” she asked. “I wanted to know the target. I wanted the numbers. I wanted to know how many deaths like Connor’s were happening every year across the country. I quickly discovered that drowning data in the U.S. is scattered and siloed. Worse yet, the data that does get shared doesn’t tell the full story. It’s like a book that’s unfinished. The chapter about teenage drownings often gets left out.”
Gage began searching every data source she could find, from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services to USA Swimming and more. She plotted all of the data she gathered in an Excel spreadsheet by age and drowning location of pool versus open water. The work took months. When it was done, she said, a simple pattern emerged from the graph: an X.
That pattern illustrates how younger children are more likely to drown in a swimming pool, most during an unplanned swim time. As kids age, the likelihood they’ll drown in a pool decreases while the risk of drowning in a natural body of water increases. By age 15, a teen’s chance of drowning in open water triples.
“The short story is drowning is a risk for the littles, and most of those are happening in pools,” Gage said. “But it’s also a risk for the bigs, and most of those are happening in open water. Nobody is drownproof, regardless of swim ability. We have to protect our kids at all ages, in all water. Always.”
Teens are naturally impulsive, fearless and often unaware of risk, especially boys, which puts them at higher risk, according to the CDC. Running through the water-safety checklist and identifying hazards such as water depth or debris beneath the murkiness is not always the first thing that pops into a teen’s mind before jumping in.
The ability to swim gives many a false sense of security, too. Adults often assume teens are strong swimmers and that will protect them from drowning. But swimming in a lake or ocean with currents, unclear water, and unseen hazards below the surface is altogether different from swimming in a pool.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 79% of boating-related deaths in 2019 were drowning related. Of those who died from drowning, 86% were not wearing life jackets. When it comes to open water, teens are at great risk. Adults in charge in open water environments have a responsibility to protect teenagers, just as they would protect a small child. That’s why Dana channels her grief into advocating for the use of life vests on lakes. So not one more parent has to experience the tragedy of losing a child to drowning.
Lifeguard Your Child
Drownings are the No. 1 cause of unintentional death in children ages 1 to 4 and second leading cause of unintentional injury death, after car accidents, for kids ages 1 to 14, according to the CDC. From May to August 2022, 47 children were treated for drowning incidents in Cook Children’s emergency department.
“Some of the most tragic things we see as emergency room physicians are injuries and deaths that could have been prevented, and that’s the case with most drownings,” said Corwin Warminck, M.D., emergency department medical director at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “Parents can help prevent drownings by having layers of protection. In open water that means wearing life vests at all times regardless of their swim ability and lifeguarding your child no matter their age.”
Lifeguard Your Child offers parents these tips for keeping their kids safe in open water:
- Life vests should be “US Coast Guard Approved (USGA).” Check the inside label for this stamp of approval. They should also be worn inside the boat or in the water, as most drowning fatalities in natural water are non-boating related.
- Know before you go. The water conditions of lakes, rivers and oceans can change daily, from clear to murky and calm to rough. Be aware of the conditions before you get in and know that there may be harmful debris under the surface that you can’t see.
- Children, whether toddlers or teens, should be watched by an adult when in or near the water. Teens are often fearless and unaware of danger. They need responsible adults to help them avoid risky behavior.
- Have a safety plan in case of an emergency. Learn CPR so that you can administer rescue procedures while EMS is in route.
For more information about keeping children and teens safe in and around water, check out www.lifeguardyourchild.org, a program of The Center for Children’s Health, led by Cook Children’s.
About Cook Children's
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.