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Toddler survives near-drowning in Phoenix, makes full recovery

Justin (Courtesy photos)

PHOENIX – It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in mid-April when Erica Alvarez found her 22-month-old son Justin facedown in their backyard pool.

She described it as a nightmare that happened within seconds after Justin’s father and brothers left a door open coming in from the backyard.

“Just going through that experience, still thinking about it hurts,” Alvarez told KTAR News 92.3 FM. “I can’t believe something like that would happen to us because we thought we were so careful.”

Alvarez and Justin’s father both jumped into the pool when they saw him.

Justin’s mother immediately started chest compressions while they waited for firefighters to arrive.

“He was throwing up some food and I didn’t know if it was a good sign, but the fire department got there and immediately started working on him and then took him to Banner Thunderbird,” Alvarez said. “I was just hoping what I was doing was enough.”

Phoenix firefighters continued to work on Justin as they rushed him to the hospital. When they arrived at the ambulance entrance to the emergency room, they got his pulse back.

That’s when the team at Banner Children’s at Thunderbird Medical Center took over his care. Dr. Rahul Chawla led the effort as a pediatric critical care and emergency room physician.

“He was very cold when he came in, his initial labs were very, very bad,” Chawla said, describing what Justin was like when he first saw him. “He had a significant portion of time when he wasn’t getting enough oxygen to his brain.”

In hopes of Justin’s greatest chance of survival, the boy was immediately intubated with a breathing tube and was given other medications inside the emergency room.

As they continued to run tests to identify what type of condition Justin was in, Chawla described signs of posturing, which are signs of a bad brain injury and can be common for drowning victims.

But it wasn’t Justin’s fate, as he started to show significant signs of improvement within 24 hours of his treatment.

The afternoon after the drowning, Justin was able to get his breathing tube taken off and get off the ventilator.

“I believe by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., he was sitting up in bed eating chocolate pudding, asking for more,” Chawla said.

Situations like this most of the time do not have good outcomes. If the victim does survive the drowning, their life can be significantly impacted with a brain injury.

But for Justin, the temperature that day played a major role in his miraculous recovery.

“The only advantage was that their pool water was cold,” Chawla said. “Like I told mom, if this had happened in August and the water became bathwater, he would not have had this outcome.”

Chawla describes cold water as “neuroprotective” during drownings like this. The cold water was able to protect Justin’s brain during the drowning which led him to a full recovery.

Less than a month after his near-death experience, Justin is back to his normal toddler self.

According to Alvarez, he continues to play basketball and be silly and loving just as he was before the drowning.

Alvarez and her family hope their story will help others understand how quickly and quietly drownings can occur in your own backyard.

They are grateful to both the firefighters and the medical staff that helped save Justin’s life.

KTAR News and Fulton Homes want to remind you that two seconds is too long to take your eyes off kids near water. To learn more about this campaign, visit the website

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