On July 1, 2018, there were 25 Dietz family members sitting around and enjoying the backyard pool off Springtown Road in New Paltz. Ann Dietz Benedetto was one of the many adults in the pool treading water by the diving board as her son Andrew, then 3, was jumping off into her arms. His twin sister Abigail was still cautious near water. She typically hovered away from the pool’s edge, afraid of falling.
For whatever reason, that day was different. Three-year-old Abigail could have been reaching for a pool flotation device, attracted by something in the water; for whatever reason, she fell in. Several minutes later, her older sister Emma saw her at the bottom of the pool and dragged her to the surface. “That was the first miracle to happen that day,” said Abigail’s aunt and Ann’s sister, Ellen Dietz, who had just left the family barbecue to get dressed for her shift as an EMT on the New Paltz Rescue Squad.
“Her uncle then lifted her lifeless body up out of the pool and onto the pool deck, where her mother did what no mother should ever have to do: She began performing CPR on her own daughter for six minutes straight. Six minutes,” repeated Dietz to a crowd of community members, family and parishioners of St. Joseph’s Church enjoying Family Fun Day at Hasbrouck Park this past Sunday. “That’s unheard-of. Abigail was not breathing, and was a color that I never hope to see again. But her mother, a trauma nurse at Vassar Hospital, would not give up.”
Three years later, Donna Dietz, Abigail’s mother Ann, Ellen and other family members still try and put back the pieces of that day. “It was at least six minutes, and we don’t know how long she was down there,” Ellen emphasized.
“I remember her vomiting up this greyish water and her eyelids flickering,” said Donna. “You carried her in your arms, because there was blood trickling out of her mouth,” said Ann to Ellen.
“I remember saying, ‘She’s back,’” said Donna, who still weeps when she recounts this day.
“And I said, ‘We don’t know how much of her is back,’” said Ann.
The greatest gift of that day was that not only was Abigail found by her older sister and carried to the surface, not only did her mother successfully perform CPR and her aunt, a trained EMT, accompany them to the hospital, but that Abigail made a full recovery. She an avid swimmer and unafraid of the water today.
The Dietz family, many of them deeply religious and spiritual, did not take what they all see as a gift from God or the Universe lightly. They want to pay it forward. “We want people to understand how quickly it can happen,” said Billy Dietz, one of Abigail’s uncles. “In an instant. We were all there. We were all watching the pool, and no one saw her slip under! It can happen to anyone. Ann was in the pool with her kids! There were other adults in there with their kids! We weren’t drinking or not paying attention.”
The Dietzes were not and are not alone. Drowning is the second leading cause of death in children aged 18 and under. There are several key things that can help get this statistic down and allow family or neighborhood pool parties to be a lot safer.
To raise awareness, family members have come up with kits that they hand out, with lifeguard badges and whistles attached, so that people can decide ahead of time who is watching the pool. “That’s the person’s job for a half-hour,” said Ellen. “Someone is assigned to watch the pool and scan it, and that’s their sole focus. They’re not going to chat or have a cocktail or go off to the bathroom.”
This system has worked well for backyard pools when there are gatherings. “Sometimes the more people that are there, the more adults relax, because it feels like there are so many eyes on the pool – but no one is really watching it closely.”
As Moriello Pool co-head lifeguards Emily Benkert and Ali Dracht emphasized, “Get your child swim lessons!” Moriello Pool in New Paltz offers summer lessons for kids ages 4 and up, and the Kingston YMCA has a myriad of classes both for parents and children. The YMCA also offers adult swim lessons, which are critically important. According to the Red Cross, there is a statistical correlation between parents who know how to swim teaching or ensuring that their children learn how to swim. Adults who are themselves afraid of the water have less ease helping their children be comfortable and strong in the water.
When kids get to a certain age, they can also feel embarrassed that they don’t know how to swim and wade further into the water than they should. It’s never too late to learn how to swim.
Dratch and Benkert also pointed out the false sense of security that flotation devices can provide. “Many of them can leak air or slip off, and then the child’s head is not above the water,” said Dracht. “Parents think that their child is safer than they are, because of the swimmies; but they’re not a substitute for parental supervision or learning how to really swim.”
Benkert also pointed out that whoever is assigned as the lifeguard should “know the pool, where the depth changes, and make that very clear to the kids. A child can be in three feet of water and then all of a sudden, the pool slides into deeper water and they’re in over their head, which is scary.”
Ann added that having a bright-colored bathing suit or attire is also key. “Abigail was wearing a blue gingham bathing suit and it blended in with the bottom of the pool, which did not help,” she said. “The brighter, the better!”
A big takeaway from the event, which the Dietz family has hosted every year since the incident with Abigail to promote awareness, is how critical knowing or even trying to do CPR is.
“The Red Cross has streamlined CPR so much now that there is no breathing into someone’s mouth,” said Ellen. “You just do compressions!”
The Dietz family brought in two New Paltz Rescue Squad volunteers, Kat Pisciotta and Matthew Schlossberg, to demonstrate how anyone can do CPR if they find someone who is not breathing, whether a child or an adult. “Fast and hard, that’s the rule,” said Schlossberg as he demonstrated on a human mannequin. “The main idea is to keep the blood flowing. That’s what you’re doing. You may break a rib, and that can be disconcerting to hear a bone break, but it’s much better to keep the person alive than to worry about a broken or bruised rib if they’re dead.”
Pisciotta suggested that a rescuer “can even sing along to the CPR by playing a metronome like ‘Staying Alive’!”
“That’s my favorite,” said Schlossberg, who invited people gathered at the event – kids and adults as well – to practice doing CPR and/or using an automatic external defibrillator (AED) machine. “Do not stop doing CPR to go look for an AED,” said Pisciotta. “But if there is one there, it will walk you through the steps. Just make sure the person is dry and you’re away from the pool or anything wet!”
All of the professionals on hand said to make sure that someone is scanning the pool, that children get swim lessons and that, if there is an accident, 911 is called and CPR performed until emergency responders arrive.
“As much pain as that day brings to me to remember and talk about, I have to think about the child or the person it might help by doing this event and bringing awareness,” said Donna. She recalled meeting someone after she told Abigail’s story whose grandson wasn’t as lucky. “They were on a family vacation like the one’s we take, and they’d rented a condo. The mom had turned for a few seconds to wipe off the table and the boy had gone down the stairs and into the hotel pool.” She had tears in her eyes as she told the story. “He didn’t make it. And even if this helps one child, then we’ve done what we intended to do. We know how lucky we were.”
Those who are interested in getting swim lessons locally during swimming season can go to www.townofnewpaltz.org/pool or call the Moriello Pool at (845) 255-1700. If closer to Kingston and/or interested in lessons throughout the year, go to the Kingston YMCA website at https://ymcaulster.org/swim-lessons or call (845) 338-3810.
Sunday’s event was a collaboration among St. Joseph’s Family and Friends Fun Day, the Dietz family and community aquatic and emergency responder representatives.