Minnesota family shares cautionary tale of near fatal drowning

With summer right around the corner and Minnesotans excited to get back into the water, one metro-area family is sharing their near-tragedy with others in hopes of keeping children safe in and around the water.

"He was gone. I mean, when you don't have a heartbeat, you're dead. I mean, he was gone," recalled Jennifer Schafer, who found her then 21-month-old toddler’s lifeless body floating in their backyard swimming pond on April 11, 2021.

Miraculously, the child would survive. And two years later, Graham Schafer is flourishing as an energetic four-year-old who loves the water, especially the man-made pond his dad built outside their western Hennepin County home.

His parents sat down for an interview with FOX 9’s Paul Blume on Thursday to talk about what happened and encourage others to always keep an eye on children as families get ready to return to the lakes, pools and rivers.

"And the next thing we know, I am looking at my husband and I said, ‘Where is Graham?’" Jennifer Schafer said about those initial moments when they realized they had lost track of their youngest child.

That is when Jennifer and her husband Ryan immediately raced outside and found Graham floating face down with no heartbeat, no pulse and no signs of life. They figure he could have been in the water for upwards of 15 minutes.

"He got there first," Jennifer said, referencing her husband as the family called 911. "He jumped in the pond and grabbed Graham and handed him up to me, and I started CPR."

Somehow emergency responders would revive the child’s heartbeat. And with the help of oxygen, they got him breathing again.

Graham’s parents had no clue if he would survive when doctors put him in a medically induced coma at the hospital and just waited to see what would happen next.

"When we first pulled him out of the pond, he was blue, and it was terrifying," explained Ryan. "It actually turned out that could have been one of the best things, because a cold core temperature helps with the survivability. So they actually kept him for four days hypothermic in a medically induced coma, where all we could do is wait and pray. There was nothing else we could do."

In the end, through all the modern medical advances and the prayer, the youngster pulled through with no apparent lingering effects. His parents tell FOX 9, his first words upon waking up were "Mommy, feed me" and "I want to go swimming."

Well, the Schafers did just that, getting the boy signed up for survival swim lessons.

Ryan and Jennifer still cannot believe they nearly lost a child to drowning explaining all four of their older children have extensive water training and are confident swimmers. Mom is CPR trained, was a lifeguard, swim instructor, and taught disaster preparedness in the Peace Corps. But during the pandemic, they could not get the youngest signed up for lessons of his own before the near-tragedy unfolded.

In addition to getting Graham up to speed with his water skills, they immediately installed a secured, gated fence around the pond, and are now committed to sharing Graham’s story as a cautionary tale.

"It could happen to anyone. It takes seconds," said Ryan Schafer, pointing to national statistics that show drowning is the number one cause of death for children between the ages of one and four.

"We want kids to have the ability to rescue themselves if they were to find the water alone," said Graham’s Infant Swimming Resource instructor Kelly Sparks. "And so it's being able to roll back and find their float and maintain that float until help arrives."

Sparks cannot believe how confident the now 4-year-old has become in the water in the last couple of years. The Schafer's message to others is to never, ever let down your guard when it comes to children and water.

"It is still scary," concluded Ryan. "Because, I mean, as much as we would like to wrap them in bubble wrap, and it still feels like a good idea, you can't. And so, you know, it's just that awareness of how fast that can happen."