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The Breath of Life : Off-Duty Officer Saves Boy Who Almost Became Drowning Victim


GLENDORA — It was the "blood-curdling scream" of a mother that sent off-duty Police Officer John Shafia darting across the street into the back yard of his Glendora neighbor's home.

His fears were confirmed when he saw the dripping-wet 2-year-old lying comatose beside the pool, his fingers, toes and gums lifelessly blue.

He wasn't breathing, and hadn't been for nearly two minutes.

The boy's mother, who, minutes before, had taken her eyes off him as he played around a pool full of six older children, had become hysterical after failing to revive him. The toddler's aunt was unsuccessfully trying to revive the boy by blowing into his mouth.

A patrol officer who works out of the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, Shafia pushed the woman aside, opened the boy's mouth and saw that his throat was clogged with a gob of fruit roll. He put the boy on his side and pushed on his abdomen to clear his airway.

Shafia blew a few breaths into the boy and within seconds Jensen Nelson came back to life.

After spending Wednesday night in the hospital, Jensen came home in good health and spirits. The first thing he wanted to know was where his bathing suit was. Doctors said they could detect no brain damage.

Paramedics and Glendora police who answered the family's frantic 911 call say Shafia, 33, saved Jensen's life, preventing him from becoming just another child drowning statistic.

Fourteen children 5 or younger have drowned in the county this year, said Billie Weiss, director of the Injury Prevention Project of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

All but three drownings were in a back-yard swimming pool. Four occurred in the San Gabriel Valley cities of Pomona, Diamond Bar, Walnut and West Covina.

The numbers are particularly startling, Weiss said, because only 15 children drowned in the county in all of 1992. All but two occurred in back-yard swimming pools.

No statistics were available for near-drownings, but for every drowning there are from 10 to 25 near-drownings, she said.

"Children should never be in the swimming pool without adult supervision, and little children should never have access to a pool without full-time adult supervision," Weiss said. "And one of the adults should definitely know CPR."

Neither Jensen's mother nor his aunt were trained in CPR.

It was swimming that had excited Jensen about the family trip from their home in Orem, Utah, to see his aunt in Glendora, his mother said.

Just hours after he was released from the hospital, Jensen was back around the pool--under the watchful eye of his mother--frolicking with bright orange floats around his arms. Asked if he likes the water, Jensen said "No. . . . I love the water."

His mother figures he ventured into the shallow end of the pool while six other children, including a 16-year-old, were busy diving in the deep end. Leslie Nelson and her sister Polly Wood were in and out of the house, trying to keep a constant eye on the children and expecting the older ones to watch out for Jensen.

But they didn't.

"My children will never be by a pool again without me watching them," said Nelson, 34, who is expecting twins in four months. "These things always happen in the 30 seconds in which you turn your back."

She says she doesn't know how to thank Shafia.

All the 12-year LAPD officer said he wants is a commitment to never again take her eyes off her children when they're playing in the pool.

Shafia who has three children of his own, was walking out the door to run an errand when he heard the scream. "I never would have heard it if I had been inside with the air conditioner on."

He had heard children playing in the pool and his first thought was that one of them was drowning.

Reaching Jensen's side seconds later, "I thought it was too late. I work homicide cases and we see a lot of dead bodies. His hands were blue. It was a terrifying look."

He visited Jensen after the boy returned home from the hospital.

"I'm relieved," Shafia said.

"In Rampart, we get a lot of domestic violence and gang-related crime: drive-bys, homicides, narcotics. . . . you really don't get the reward of saving a life."

Shafia got the boy breathing about a minute before paramedics arrived. That additional, crucial minute might have caused brain damage or death, Weiss said.

The typical child drowning victim is a 2- or 3-year-old who finds a way out of the house and into the back yard and either walks into or accidentally falls in the pool, Weiss said.

To prevent pool injuries and drownings, health officials recommend that parents keep a constant eye on their children. In addition, they advise parents to install a fence between the house and the swimming pool so that children cannot venture into the pool.

"A wonderful afternoon of swimming almost turned into a tragedy for us," Nelson said. "Because it happened, we have learned a lesson. I'm just so thankful to John."

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