As parents of three young boys, Eli and Melissa Thomas are used to constant roughhousing, teasing and noise.

So, they immediately feared the silence last August during a family trip to a relative’s home with a pool.

The pool was new and the gate to the pool deck was not completely installed. During the visit, the older two boys, ages 5 and 7, swam as the family enjoyed time outside. The Thomas family also stayed nearby in the backyard in a tent, all the better to view the stars and expected meteor showers.

At the end of the trip, the parents worked to pack up their tent and supplies and clean up the campfire site.

It was then they realized they heard nothing. They locked eyes and realized their 2-year-old Rhys was no longer near.

They knew he went to play in the one spot that was off limits — the pool.

Eli ran and found a corner of the pool cover pulled away. He saw his son’s little body head down and completely submerged in four feet of water and quickly pulled him out by his ankle as he cried for his wife to call 911.

“I pulled Rhys out of the water and immediately noticed vomit on his chin and neck. His entire face was blue and his eyes were bloodshot and moving very slowly and aimlessly,” he said.

With his son on the ground before him, the pertinent details of a course he had taken just a month earlier flooded back into his mind. The American Heart Association CPR training was offered at a company-organized retreat that Eli attended with his co-workers, including several other parents interested in the specifics of performing CPR on children.

“After seeing the vomit on Rhys’s face I immediately thought to clear his airway.” As soon as Eli had attempted to drain any water and clear Rhys’ mouth and throat, Rhys appeared to have a seizure, arching his back and clenching his jaw tight for several seconds. Eli knew he had to wait for the seizure to pass. When Rhys’ body finally relaxed, he went completely limp.

“Without thinking about it I gave him two small breaths and then placed my hand in the position I remembered for giving compressions to a child. At that point, Rhys’ left hand jerked a bit,” Eli said, causing him to wait on the compressions to see if Rhys responded further. “Slowly, he began to move more, taking small gasping breaths and finally he rolled over and started to cry.”

His uncle, homeowner Andy Thomas, assisted, while Melissa gave pertinent information to the 911 operator. As she finished speaking, her phone died leaving her to wonder if EMS was actually on its way.

Rhys was groggy, sluggish and crying. but he was not active and alert. When EMS arrived, they rushed him and his parents to the emergency room.

The doctor checked for acute respiratory distress syndrome and assured there was no fluid in his lungs. Further, the doctor thought it likely that Rhys had been a victim of “dry drowning,” where the vocal cords seize shut, preventing water from entering the lungs, and that it was the breaths given that relaxed Rhys’ larynx and allowed him to begin breathing again.

Today, Rhys is fully recovered from the near-drowning and the Thomas family believes it is important to share the importance of learning CPR. In February, Eli spoke at the Cleveland Go Red For Women luncheon and urged listeners to support a proposal to make CPR training a requirement for graduation from high school. He also spoke at a Jump Rope for Heart assembly at his sons’ school. He told the children about how money raised for the American Heart Association goes toward research to help save lives.

Rhys’ brothers were the top fundraisers at the school and pledged their work in honor of their little brother.

The boys and Melissa have now also gone through training at a Family & Friends CPR Night. While the children are too little to do hand compressions effectively, they can spot an automated external defibrillator (AED) when they see one.

“It is so easy to take a CPR course. And it is so important to do, so that in a moment of panic, you can still function,” said Eli.

The AHA recently launched its new online course, Heartsaver® Pediatric First Aid CPR AED. The course is designed to meet the training needs of childcare providers across the U.S., but it is also a resource for anyone responsible for the care and safety of children. The course teaches how to respond to and manage illnesses and injuries in a child or infant in the first few minutes until professional help arrives. It covers critical first aid skills, how to create a safe environment, as well as life-saving CPR.

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Photos by Melissa Thomas