Soraya Morgynn Stevens loved the water. From her very first bath, she was always happiest when splashing in the tub, says her mother, Sophia Brizeus, 40, a business support coordinator with Baptist Health Urgent Care Express in Palm Beach County. Mrs. Brizeus wanted Soraya to be able to enjoy swimming at her grandmother’s house, which had a pool, so when Soraya was just 23 months old she signed her up for swimming lessons. Tragically, Soraya drowned in her grandmother’s pool, just one week before she was to have her first lesson.
(Watch now: Sophia Brizeus talks about the accidental drowning of her daughter, Soraya, in the family’s swimming pool. Video by George Carvalho.)
It was July 22, 2018, just another Sunday for the Brizeus family, which had gathered at Soraya’s grandmother’s house with some friends and some family members visiting from out of town. Soraya was inside with Sophia, and at some point her grandmother took her into the kitchen to give her some mashed potatoes, which the little girl loved.
With all of the activity in the house, however, Soraya managed to toddle out of the kitchen unnoticed. Both Mrs. Brizeus and her mother assumed she was with the other. Then, somehow, Soraya slipped out of the house and onto the patio. In a matter of seconds, without anyone noticing, Soraya tumbled silently into the pool.
Mrs. Brizeus remembers hearing a gut-wrenching scream from out on the patio. “It was really loud. I went out and saw my cousin, who’s a nurse, running over to me. She was holding my daughter – my world, my heart – in her arms. I ran back inside to get my phone so I could call 911 and when I came back out my cousin was performing CPR on her little body.”
Mrs. Brizeus doesn’t remember the ambulance ride to the hospital. “I just remember sitting in the ER waiting room, rocking back and forth. I remember seeing feet walking into the waiting room and someone saying, ‘We’re sorry, your daughter didn’t make it.’ ”
And all of a sudden, instead of planning her daughter’s second birthday, Mrs. Brizeus would have to pivot to planning her funeral.
Florida has highest rate of child drownings
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), drowning is a leading cause of death for children. More children ages one to four die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects, the CDC notes, and drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for young children, after motor vehicle crashes.
In Florida, a state that is surrounded by water and where swimming pools, lakes and canals are everywhere, the number of child drownings jumped from 69 to 98 last year, and the Florida Department of Children and Families says the state “loses more children under the age of five to drowning than any other state in the nation.” Also, for every child who dies from drowning, another eight receive emergency department care for non-fatal or near drowning, which can cause brain damage and other serious long-term disabilities.
Survival swim lessons reduce drowning risk 88 percent
Since that horrible day in 2018, Mrs. Brizeus says she has encountered a lot of other parents who have lost children to drowning. “It’s a club you don’t want to be a member of,” she says. She has dedicated her free time to working as a swim safety advocate, helping increase awareness and prevention of child drowning. She also started Facebook and Instagram groups, “Soraya’s Love Bugs,” to share information about drowning and resources for parents interested in swimming lessons for their little ones.
“I always called Soraya my lady bug from the moment I found out I was pregnant, even before I knew my baby was a girl,” Mrs. Brizeus says. “I had a ladybug theme for my baby shower and she was just my little ladybug – and she just loved bugs, so that’s where the name comes from.”
Noting that survival swim lessons reduce the risk of child drowning by 88 percent, Mrs. Brizeus says “Soraya’s Love Bugs” has links to organizations such as Infant Swimming Resource , which allows parents to enter their zip code and find certified ISR swim instructors in their area.
Swimming lessons alone aren’t enough, however. Constant vigilance is required any time a child is in or near water. “Kids are curious and they’re quick. They can be here one minute and then you’re like, ‘Where’d they go?’ You need to have someone be your water-watcher at all times,” Mrs. Brizeus says.
Drowning often happens silently
According to Mrs. Brizeus, drowning is rarely accompanied by loud screaming and frantic splashing, as it is often portrayed in movies. “Drowning is silent and it’s quick and it can happen in under 30 seconds,” says Mrs. Brizeus, adding that a child can slip under the water without even causing a ripple. “A child could literally be drowning right in front of you and you might not even know it.”
Drowning can happen anytime, according to the CDC, including when children are not expected to be near water, such as when they gain unsupervised access to pools. “Drowning doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are, what you look like, how old you are. However, it is 100 percent preventable,” Mrs. Brizeus reminds people. “By sharing my story, I hope I’m helping at least one family to not go through what we have gone through.”
Swimming for Soraya
It’s never too early to start teaching your child how to swim, or at the very least how to stay afloat and keep their head above water, according to Mrs. Brizeus, whose seven-month-old daughter, Destiny, just had her first survival swim lesson. “I call it Swim for Soraya,” she says. “I say to Destiny, ‘Okay, you’re going to swim for Soraya today,’ and that’s what we do.”
Mrs. Brizeus is taking advantage of the increased awareness generated by National Water Safety Awareness Month – and International Water Safety Day on May 15 – to spread the word about the importance of swimming lessons in drowning prevention. She will be participating in an Instagram Live event hosted by Baptist Health on May 26th at 12 p.m., and on June 4th she’ll be supporting the annual “ Splash  Day ”  swim safety event, hosted by West Kendall Baptist Hospital, from 9 a.m. until 12 noon at Miccosukee Golf & Country Club.