In the Words of a Grieving Mother: Teenagers & Open Water Drowning
Dana Gage's son, Connor, drowned in a swimming incident that was 100% preventable. During the summer months, The LV Project raises awareness about drowning prevention and advocates for the use of life vests on lakes.
By Ashley Antle
As summer draws to a close, one mother, Dana Gage, is sharing her journey to making her son’s tragic drowning death matter.
On Aug. 31, 2012, Dana's son, Connor, left for a friend’s birthday party at a rented lakehouse. Little did either of them know, it would be the last time Dana 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.
In the 10 years since Connor’s death, Dana and her family established The LV Project, to raise awareness about drowning prevention and advocate for the use of life vests on lakes. We asked Dana to share with us how Connor inspired what has become her life's work since his death.
What is one of your favorite memories of Connor?
I spent my career in marketing and advertising. One of my favorite memories is sitting with Connor and watching TV. An ad would come on and he’d say, “Mom, that’s a really good commercial.” Then, in great detail, he’d proceed to tell me why. And he was always spot on. I remember thinking, how on earth does this little kid have the ability to discern between good advertising and bad advertising? How does he deconstruct these ads down to the nuances that result in a great commercial? But he did, and it was fun. For me, it was sort of like having a pint-sized work buddy at home.
At a very young age, Connor seemed to understand that connecting with people emotionally is the way to get people to think, and hopefully, act. On one of his school assignments, Connor was asked what he would do with his life. He wrote, “I’ll probably go into advertising or something.” In many ways, he has, as we share his story in hopes of preventing drowning deaths.
As you reach the 10-year mark of Connor's death, what do you want people to know about his legacy and remember about his life?
It’s taken every bit of the last 10 years to pry my broken momma heart loose from the magnetic force of lament mode and force myself into joy mode. It’s like weightlifting. It’s a constant struggle not to be crushed under the loss. There are many days I am still on the floor, in a heap of grief. But I get up. I fall down. Then I get up. After 10 years, as my grief muscle continues to develop, I find that I’m getting up more quickly, and I’m falling down less.
I’m trying not to dwell in the lament of what Connor could have been and, instead, genuinely celebrate what Connor was. A happy kid who enjoyed his life. I guess when people think of Connor, they’re naturally going to remember the boy who died. But what I truly hope is that they remember the boy who LIVED. Connor lived joyfully, happily, buoyantly. He made his 15 years count far beyond his 15 years. There are no guarantees in this life, and there are no do-overs. Connor made his count.
We remember his buoyant spirit. We remember his smile, and we remember that come what may, we can keep going.
How does Connor's life inspire the work of The LV Project?
I started The LV Project in November 2012, just two months after we lost our boy. Why? Honestly, because it was the only alternative to losing my mind. I had to do something. Doing nothing wasn’t an option.
On that awful day, Riley lost his only sibling and his best friend. Brett and I lost our family, our dreams, our hearts, our future. It was too horrible to be true. Yet, it WAS true. My baby DID die. This WAS now my life. And I had no idea how to face it. Broken open, shattered in a million pieces, sitting in the rubble, I spent my days walking in literal circles over and over inside my house. From the living room to the kitchen to the dining room and repeat. Groaning and walking. Walking and groaning. I guess you could say, all those circles led straight to The LV Project.
Most people think of LV’s mission as drowning prevention, but in reality, it’s heartbreak prevention and hope. We’re in the buoyancy business. That’s true on water and in life. No mom, dad, brother or sister should feel the way Brett, Riley and I do every day. Not when it can be prevented. And the thing is, it really is possible to end these tragedies. Drowning really is a problem we can fix. The LV Project is where we make our suffering matter. If you live long enough, you’re going to suffer. We have to make it count. Because suffering without meaning is just despair. That’s why The LV Project isn’t just about how Connor died. It’s about how he lived. And Connor lived buoyantly.
Why is it important that parents, health professionals, lawmakers and anyone responsible for a child's safety and life understand The X Effect?
The seeds for The X Effect were planted pretty quickly after Connor’s death, though we didn’t know it at the time. In the weeks that followed, we were surrounded by the loving support, but also stunned by how few people mentioned the fact that the boys weren’t wearing life vests at the lake party where he died. No one brought it up. The blame seemed to fall on Connor. It was chalked up to “boys will be boys” and “reckless teenage behavior” or just “a terrible accident.” That sickened me. Still does. Terrible it was, but accident it wasn’t. Connor’s death was not some random, unstoppable event. It was preventable.
Even more shocking was how little people understood the dangers of open water. If my underage son had died in a car because the driver didn’t require seat belts there would’ve been shock and rage at the carelessness. If Connor had been killed by a drunk driver there would’ve been a certain fury at the recklessness. But very few people seemed to understand that allowing a kid to swim after sunset and jump from high places in an unfamiliar lake without a life vest is every bit as dangerous.
There was a time when people didn’t wear seat belts. And there was a time when people drove while drinking alcohol. But, unnecessary deaths—deaths like Connor’s—created the change necessary to save lives. Now is the time for people to understand that knowing how to swim does NOT make a kid drown-proof. Now is the time for people to understand that a life vest in a lake is like a seat belt in a car. Now is the time for people to understand that it’s our responsibility to protect those at the highest risk—teenagers age 15 to 19—from drowning in open water.
What everyone needs to understand is this: you can’t out-water the water. The water always wins. We hope The X Effect opens a lot of eyes to the reality of drowning for ALL kids—little and big.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about teens and drowning?
Absolutely the biggest misconception is that people think good swimmers are drown-proof. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in open water.
There were many factors that contributed to my son’s death. Paramount is the fact that I did not ensure that my son would be required to wear a life vest, nor did the host family require the boys to wear them. That was a recipe for disaster. The five boys at this party were given permission to swim very late in the day. Connor went under at 8:15 pm. The sun had set that day at 7:55 p.m. It was entirely too late to be in the water. It’s impossible to see anything in lake water at high noon, much less after sunset. We have a saying, “When the sun’s low, the kids gotta go.” Low light conditions can turn an already risky situation deadly.
The other challenge is our life vest laws which, I believe, work against us. The law in Texas says life vests only need to be worn by kids 12 and under, and only in boats. That leads most parents and kids to a false sense of security. The irony is that in Texas, 80% of open-water drownings happen beyond the boat, meaning in open water settings such as shorelines or simply swimming in the lake. So, there’s this presumed assumption of safety because the law says you don’t need a life vest when you’re 13 or older. Meanwhile, our strong swimmers are drowning. Per the CDC, open water drownings triple at age 15, and the drowning rates remain elevated through adulthood. So as the life vests come off, the drowning rates spike.
But the most important thing is to know the numbers. In open water, more teens and adults drown than small children. We love our littles. We love our bigs. We have to protect them both by making life vests a must.
What work still needs to be done when it comes to action and awareness of this issue?
Raising the current mandatory life jacket wear age from 12 to 16 as a law would be an amazing first step. That would save a lot of lives, and also serve as an effective signal to parents and their teens that good swimmers can drown and do.
Secondly, everyone should have the opportunity to learn how to swim. Getting swim lessons into our school curriculums as a basic life skill would be a fundamental lifesaver. In those lessons, bridging the gap between pools and open water is important. Swim lesson instructors should plant the seeds early about the differences between closed and open water so the safety measures continue as the kids age into adolescence.
Lastly, just like every young parent learns how to keep their kid safe when they’re babies with car seats, poison control and more, we need to educate our young moms and dads about the reality of teenage drowning. Water safety goes beyond learning how to swim. It’s the second leading cause of death, after automobile accidents, for kids ages 15 to 19. I’m sure if more adults knew that, requiring teenagers to wear a life vest wouldn’t be a maybe, it would be a must.
Lifeguard Your Child
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.