Looking at 8-month-old Steven Christopher Dixon today, his parents find it hard to believe that less than two weeks ago the Westminster toddler had stopped breathing, had no heartbeat and was, in fact, clinically dead after crawling into the family swimming pool.
No one knows exactly how long Steven was under water that Sunday afternoon. The guesses range from 15 to 30 minutes. Yet on Thursday, the baby was eating, laughing, rolling over--acting as if nothing serious had happened.
Hypothermia, a sharp drop in body temperature, may have saved the boy’s life, a doctor said.
‘A Miracle,’ Father Says
But his father, Steven L. Dixon, an aerospace worker, said, “It’s phenomenal, a miracle. He was literally born again, and we thank God for that.”
“It was God,” Dexcine Dixon, Steven’s mother, agreed. “God gave us a second chance. From the time he was found, right up to now, it was just the Lord’s work.”
The near-tragedy occurred about 3:30 p.m. on May 19. Dixon said he was “in and out of the house, doing yard work” while his 13-year-old daughter, Gina, played with Steven and a 3-year-old sister. No one noticed that a patio screen door had been left open, he said.
When Gina left the room, Steven apparently crawled outside and fell into the pool. Some time later, looking for the baby, Gina found him in the water and screamed. Their father came running.
“I pulled him out and immediately began CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation),” Dixon recalled. “My wife, Dexcine, was at work, so I told Gina to call the paramedics.”
‘Child Was Very White’
When the paramedics arrived, they found “the child was very white, lying flat on the grass,” Capt. Elvis Easley said. The Westminster Fire Department rescue workers immediately began efforts to revive Steven.
“I saw a lot of fluid coming out of the baby’s mouth,” Easley said. That fluid was apparently a mixture of pool water and partially digested food. Firefighters Craig Campbell and Steve Blue began administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Easley said.
An ambulance arrived for the four-minute trip to Fountain Valley Community Hospital, with Campbell continuing his resuscitation efforts. A tube was inserted into Steven’s esophagus to keep the liquid from entering his lungs, and a stimulant was injected into the soft tissue under his tongue.
“It was a full-arrest situation,” Easley said. In the ambulance, a heart monitor recorded “just a straight line, no cardiac activity at all,” he said. A few minutes after Steven arrived at the hospital, however, his heart began beating, albeit slowly, Easley recalled.
Body Temperature 91
Dr. Leonard Fox, the pediatric critical care specialist who headed the trauma team that worked on Steven at the hospital, said the infant’s body temperature was 91 degrees when he was brought in. After about 30 minutes, the team noticed that his pupils were responding to light--a sign of brain activity.
Steven’s lowered body temperature, known as hypothermia, could have saved his life by slowing the body’s metabolic rate and possibly preventing brain damage, Fox said. Called “the diving reflex,” the response is similar to that found in underwater mammals when practically “all of the blood supply is transferred to the heart and brain at a very low metabolic rate,” Fox said.
During treatment, instead of artificially warming the infant, the medical team allowed his body temperature to rise naturally over a period of almost two hours, Fox said.
With medication, Steven was then placed into a deep sleep. About four hours later, abnormal body positions--indicating disturbances within the brain--ceased, and he began making normal baby movements, Fox said. He was then brought out of the sleep.
Brain wave tests taken since then show no brain damage, Fox added.
Capt. Easley, a paramedic for almost eight years and a firefighter for 10 years before that, said of the recovery: “Undoubtedly, in my 18 years in the Fire Department, I’ve never seen one as dramatic. I’m still in awe.” Easley added that he had “never seen a child look like that--usually they have other colors, but this child had one color, and it was absolutely white.”
Efforts made by the paramedics may have been “extremely pertinent to the boy’s survival,” said Battalion Chief Dwayne Scott. The involved firefighters might receive special awards for “service above and beyond the call of duty,” he said, distinguishing between “the normal course of action and that extra effort.”
Dr. Fox, too, credits the speed and expertise of paramedics and the hospital team for much of Steven’s recovery, adding, “but the rest is up to him.” He, too, said he has never seen such a complete recovery, so quickly, especially when the probable length of time Steven was under water is considered.
Dr. Patrick Walsh, director of pediatric intensive care at the hospital, said drowning victims who are submerged as long as Steven almost always die or suffer severe brain damage.
“Close to zero will survive; 100% of the times that a victim is in full arrest, there is severe brain damage or death,” he said.
Walsh said four to six minutes without oxygen is usually sufficient to cause severe brain damage. However, in cases of very cold water, “such as in Scandinavia or Chicago last winter,” hypothermia can set in and “the victim might last a little longer.”
But hypothermia is rare in California because of higher water temperatures. “That’s what’s so unusual about this case: The patient seems intact. His brain appears to be normal. We don’t see any evidence of neurological deficits,” Walsh said.
Meanwhile, Steven shows signs of improvement every day and is scheduled to go home Monday. “Last night we were spoon-feeding him bananas and pears,” said his dad. “He’s laughing and cooing, coherent, bouncing right back to normal.”