From tragedy grows advocacy: A mom fights to change an industry


Nancy Baker, former daughter-in-law of former Secretary of State James Baker, lost her daughter, Virginia Graeme, four summers ago. Though a strong swimmer, 7-year-old Graeme (as she was called) was caught in a hot tub drain, and drowned. The youngster was held by the suction of the drain, so strong that the adults attempting to rescue her were unable to pull her up. When she was finally brought to the surface, the drain came up with her, attached to her buttocks.


Graeme became the 36th such victim since 1985 — although it’s likely there have been many more similar tragedies because victims’ deaths tend to be listed as “drownings”. “I looked at my daughter’s death certificate and it said that: ‘drowning’,” Nancy Baker relates. The Baker family continues to suffer from the terrible loss and the knowledge that the death of their lovely blonde-haired daughter could have been prevented. At first, Baker says, “it only occurred to me to make it through the day, to keep my family together.” But eventually Baker was gripped by a fervor to prevent more such tragedies. She started to research the incidences of pool and hot tub drain blockages, and began her lobbying efforts to change an industry that remains frustratingly resistant to change. The Bakers aim is the mandatory installation of an auto-mechanism in every pool or hot tub; when something blocks the drain, this mechanism creates a change in pressure and shuts off the pump automatically. Such a device would have saved Graeme, Nancy Baker explains with regret. “The industry does not seem to embrace such a measure,” she acknowledges. “They see multiple drains and proper drain covers as the way to address entrapment, as the way to prevent entrapment.” But if someone does get trapped, she continues, there is only one sure way to start the rescue process: by cutting off the suction via an auto-mechanism in the pump. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) has introduced the Pool and Spa Safety Act, motivating states to pass laws that incorporate layers of protection to help prevent drowning, drain entrapment and hair entanglements; this legislation includes installation of shut-off devices in pumps. Nancy and James Baker recently kicked off National Safe Kids Week in Washington, where they spoke publicly about Graeme’s story. They say they will continue to talk about that tragic day until change occurs. “I liken it to the time it took to get seatbelts made mandatory in cars,” Nancy Baker says. “That took a long time, too.” The Bakers have been blessed with four other children — all girls — aged 22, 20, 15, and Graeme’s twin sister, Jackie, now 11. At the time of the accident, two of the girls were in the pool with Graeme and there were adults hovering nearby. “Until then, my idea of supervision was to be right next to the pool,” Baker says. “But it’s not enough. An adult has to be watching the water all the time.” Baker is adamant about getting the word out to other parents, to share her loss in an effort to increase safety efforts around pools and hot tubs. She and her father-in-law have joined forces with Safe Kids Worldwide, a global network of organizations whose mission is to prevent accidental childhood injury, to raise awareness, and to effect change. Baker lists the vital points on their agenda: —To have pool maintenance companies add to their signs that they will clean, open and close homeowners’ pools . . . “and provide a safety check.” —To make mandatory the installation of barrier fencing around all pools. —To make mandatory the use of proper drain covers that are properly installed. —To make mandatory the installation of an automatic shut-off device in all pumps. —In all new pool construction, to make mandatory the installation of multiple drains to help diffuse suction strength, allowing for a chance at rescue. —For pool owners to use alarms at poolside and on back doors and pool gates to alert the parent to a wandering toddler in the vicinity of the pool. “Things take time, but the technology is there,” Baker points out. While she will always mourn the loss of Graeme, she says she thinks of her daughter now “as some kind of guardian angel, giving me the strength to talk about all this and to work on change. I accept what’s happened to Graeme, but I don’t accept the situation. I think we have to ask now: What can we do with all these losses — mine and others’ — to make for good change?”

Safe Kids also offers the following tips:

—Warn your children about the dangers of drain entanglement and entrapment, and teach them to stay away from the drain. —Actively supervise your children around water, and have a phone nearby to call for help in an emergency. —Ensure your pool has four-sided fencing and a self-latching gate, to prevent a child from wandering into the pool area unsupervised. In addition, hot tubs should be covered and locked when not in use.