Unimaginable heartbreak prevention

Losing her 3-year-old son to drowning, Hughes finds way to keep parents on guard

The Hughes family, from left, daughter, Reese; mother, Nicole; daughter, Lily; father, Jonathan; and son, Levi, is pictured during their annual beach trip in 2017. This year’s trip, held in June, turned tragic with Levi’s drowning, but his mother is determined to save other children’s lives with the Water Guardian lanyard she designed and is tirelessly promoting.
Children’s drowning deaths rarely occur while swimming, as Nicole Salvaggio Hughes heartbreakingly discovered just over a month ago.

Her 3-year-old son, Levi, tragically drowned during a family vacation June 11, and while she can’t change what happened, she has made a determined effort to ensure Levi lives on in a way that might save other families from the same fate.

Hughes, her anesthesiologist husband, Jonathan Hughes; daughters, Reese and Lily; and Levi, were on the Alabama Gulf Coast with five other couples for a summer vacation the second week of June, just as they had done for the last five summers.

“It was six doctors and their wives,” explained Nicole’s twin sister, Farragut resident Melissa Glover. “It was the same families and all the same kids.”

Hughes, who is a University of Tennessee graduate and currently resides in Blountville, said there were 12 adults and 17 children at the rented duplex, which had a backyard pool.

It was the evening of June 10 and after dinner, when several in the group were planning to return to the beach to crab hunt.

Hughes said the children were in one area of the house, which overlooked the pool, and she had gone in to check on them. Seeing Levi, she gave him half a brownie that had just come from the oven, and popped the other half in her mouth as she left the room.

The brownie was still in her mouth when she glanced at the pool area shortly thereafter, and spotted Levi in the water.

“It could not even have been two minutes,” she said.

Hughes ran to the pool, and her cries summoned other adults, all of whom worked to save him.

“They were all anesthesiologists — they all knew what to do,” Hughes said. “They were able to get a faint pulse, but he had been without oxygen to his brain for too long.”

Levi died the next morning.

Engulfed by grief, Hughes began researching statistics on child drowning and was shocked at what she discovered.

“Eighty percent of children who drown are boys,” she said. “And, almost all drownings occur when children are not even swimming.”

Also contributing, she said, is that children are known to breathe in when they enter the water, creating a much shorter window of time when the successful rescue could take place.

“It can happen within seconds because they don’t know how to hold their breaths,” she said.

Hughes was “devastated” because of all the safety issues she had learned as a parent — car-seat usage and cutting up food properly among them — but drowning statistics never were discussed.

“I am just so angry at the universe because I can’t handle the thought that I didn’t know it could happen so quickly," she said

That anger, and a growing understanding of the prevalence of child drownings under similar circumstances, fueled an idea to create a tangible reminder Hughes has been able to bring to fruition just within the last two weeks.

After winning the support of the American Lifeguard Association, Hughes worked with a company that helped her create a laminated tag that would designate a specific person as “Water Guardian.”

“Everything I read goes back to supervision. Supervision is the only thing that works,” she said. “Alarms are too late.”

The tag is roughly the size of a credit card “so you feel it,” Hughes added. It hangs from a lanyard to be worn around the neck of the designee.

“You can’t assume someone is watching them. You wouldn’t believe the stories I have heard. People were bowing their heads to pray, and a kid got in a hot tub. Or they were unloading the car or were cleaning up from dinner.

“These (drownings) are not happening at the beach or at Splash Country because people are watching (there).”

Hughes has created a Facebook page titled “Levi’s Legacy” on which she openly has shared her family’s story and its continuing aftermath — along with her hope to be able to prevent similar tragedies by sharing how to purchase the lanyards.

“They are $9.90, which only covers the card, the lanyard and shipping,” she said. “It is not a fundraiser, but I have had several people make donations to make sure others can have them.”

She has received an outpouring of support from her family,

which in addition to Glover includes her parents, Vince and Debbie Salvaggio, also of Farragut.

“It is so important to get the word out,” Debbie Salvaggio said. “We are trying to spread the word and hopefully it can save a life.

“There has got to be a reason (for what has happened), and it has got to help somebody else," she added.

Hughes has appeared in many news and media outlets over the last two weeks, sharing the Water Guardian lanyards along with her own hard-won knowledge and resolve.

“I want him to be here,” she said. “I don’t want him to have a legacy. But I can’t sit here and read (other people’s stories) without doing something.

“And who knows? Maybe one of the kids who are saved will go on to cure cancer," Hughes added.

“It is all I can hold onto.”