Fort Worth, Texas,
12:04 PM

PICU Team Talks Record-Breaking, Tragic Drowning Season

When the summer began, Ben Olsson, D.O., a pediatric intensive care unit physician at Cook Children's, hosted a press conference at the medical center, asking parents to "Lifeguard Your Child" and warning them about the dangers of drowning. 

As one of the worst drowning seasons in Cook Children's history continues, Dr. Olsson is trying again. 

Dr. Olsson said it has been a "rough season" on his staff and it can be frustrating because so much effort has been placed on awareness, they will continue to do all they can to educate families in hope of preventing another drowning.

"There are tragedies we see that can be life changing for families and a drowning is one of those," Dr. Olsson said. "What’s difficult for us as staff is that these are usually healthy kids leading up to this. It’s a very quick change in a family’s life from that point on."

Twelve children have died from swimming-related drowning causes this year at Cook Children's, the most in at least six years.  

After going through the Emergency Department, many of the children who are treated at Cook Children's spend time in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. The PICU team says the impact of a drowning lasts long after the child is no longer at the medical center.

"Drownings are tough for us because you have children who the day before or hours before were playing or they  had their pictures taken," said Rachel Hayes, a registered nurse in the PICU. "Their parents were celebrating, maybe going out for dinner or going out to barbecue in the backyard. So it’s knowing that those children had a beautifully healthy life and suddenly at the drop of a hat (she snaps her fingers) their lives are changed forever. The family’s life is changed forever. The neighbors’ lives are changed forever. So I think that’s part of what it makes it so challenging is just that we can relate to these kids as our children."

Dr. Olsson said the staff is specially trained to give the children who enter the PICU the best possible care, but it never stops being difficult for the caregiver.

"Dealing with the families and their emotions and walking with them is a struggle for us sometimes," Dr. Olsson said. "And there’s always the battle of us transposing that on ourselves and our own family and our own children,  thinking of those situations and what it would be like to be in those situations. And often times we do. Often times  as much as we approach it in a professional way, we are human and we have emotions and feelings. Sometimes we have to cry with the families and sometimes we have to cry with each other and support each other in that. Our Pastoral Care department helps us in those situations."

"Even if you do come to terms with, 'OK we dealt with that one. I’m at peace with that one.' Then the next week another kid comes in with same story," Hayes said. "The same thing happens. So you don’t get to let go of it in that aspect. Yeah, definitely, it’s very emotional and it sticks with you."

And while much is made of the drowning deaths, the staff in the PICU stress that just because a child makes it out alive, it doesn't guarantee the best of results.

"There’s a heartbreak to it that nothing else can come close to and it's heart-wrenching because it's 100 percent preventable," said Cammie Bonahoon, a registered nurse in the PICU. "The child may have come back out of that pool alive, with a pulse and with blood pressure, but they aren’t going to be the same child that went into that pool."


Get to Know Our Pediatric Intensive Care Unit

The Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Cook Children's Medical Center cares for children with life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

This includes treatment for illnesses such as multi-system trauma, respiratory distress/failure, infections and shock.

The unit also cares for children recovering from procedures such as cardiothoracic surgeries, brain surgeries, kidney transplants and spinal surgeries. These children require life support and/or intensive monitoring.

On-site 24 hours a day, seven days a week are two physician specialists (board certified in pediatric intensive care or board certified pediatric cardiologist) and a nurse practitioner trained in pediatric intensive care. Specialty physicians, such as neurologists, pulmonologists, oncologists and cardiologists, are available for consultation or referrals

Services include

  • Level I Pediatric Intensive Care Unit
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)
  • Respiratory management with conventional and oscillatory ventilation
  • Continuous renal replacement therapy and dialysis services
  • Specialty gases for respiratory support such as heliox (a blend of oxygen and helium), nitrogen (for subatmospheric oxygen therapy) and nitric oxide
  • Level II trauma services



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