An Oklahoma mother is speaking out about the dangers of open-air carbon monoxide poisoning after the tragic death of her 9-year-old son.
On June 6, Cassandra Free of Broken Arrow, Okla. and her family were looking forward to a day filled with fun on Lake Eufaula. Free’s family along with a family friend spent the day tubing and wake surfing on the water, but towards the end of the day, Free’s youngest son, Andrew Brady, became unconscious and fell into the lake, never waking up again.
In an interview with TODAY Health, Free recalled that all three of her sons, including 15-year-old Jonathan and 13-year-old Blake, began complaining that they didn’t feel well. As the family began to dock, Andrew, “crawled onto the back of the boat and curled up in a ball.”
“We were packing and cleaning up and the kids are groaning that they don’t feel good, just want to take a nap,” said Free. “My husband got Blake, my middle son, up. When he tried to get Andy, the boat just rocked and Andy rolled off. My husband, he was like, 'What the heck?’”
Andrew, who had been a strong swimmer, didn’t move or attempt to swim as he fell. Free’s husband, Brett, and their family friend immediately jumped into the water to save him.
“They were able to recover him but he never breathed another breath,” Free recalled. “They did CPR forever, it seemed, before emergency services came. The doctors said there is zero brain activity. Even if they got a single breath, there would have been no quality of life.”
According to Free, someone suggested testing her eldest sons for carbon monoxide poisoning. Results showed that both Jonathan and Blake had acute carbon monoxide poisoning, prompting the medical examiner to test Andrew as well.
“His levels were 72 carboxyhemoglobin, which means 72 percent of his blood could not carry oxygen to his brain. That resulted in brain death,” Free explained.
The 9-year-old’s levels of carbon monoxide were so high, doctors advised Free that by the time he fell into the water he was “already gone.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), open air carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when gasoline powered boats (as well as onboard generators) vent the odourless, colourless gas towards the back of the boat.
Idling or travelling at slow speeds can cause a build up of carbon monoxide, something Free said the family did not consider while traveling on Lake Eufaula, which has a long no-wake zone, which required the Frees to travel at a slower speed.
To help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning while boating, the CDC recommends swimming and playing away from areas where engines vent their exhaust and avoid blocking all exhausts which can cause build up. Educating all passengers on the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, carefully watching all children at the rear of the boat and avoiding anchoring within 20 ft of an idling boat can help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from occurring.
The CDC reports that early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.
In August, Free took to Facebook to warn others of the dangers of open air carbon monoxide poisoning. Although news outlets initially reported that Andrew had drowned, Free wrote that she was waiting for autopsy reports before setting the record straight.
“He was at the back of our Malibu Skier most of the day. Boats, even moving, create a backdraft of exhaust. That’s right. Exactly what I’ve typed: carbon monoxide exits the rear of the boat and drafts right back into the back of the boat,” she wrote. “Backseat riders are especially vulnerable at low speeds and in long no-wake zones like the one we had to cross to return to the docks.”
Free told TODAY that the adults present on the boat the day that Andrew died each had more than twenty years of boating experience, but were unaware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Free has called life since Andrew’s death “a nightmare” — but she hopes that by sharing his story she can help prevent another family from experiencing a similar tragedy.
“Andy was supposed to grow up and save the world,” she said. “He still can. He can never grow up, but he can still save the world. His name will be forever tied to the lives he saved. That has become my mission. To make sure that no mom stands in my shoes.”