Life-and-Death Questions Loom Over Michael Phelps Swim Club’s Tardy, Incomplete, Inaccurate Maryland Health Department Incident Report in Louis Lowenthal Drowning

Journalist Tim Joyce Joins Concussion Inc. As Collaborator on Swimming Story
February 20, 2013
Now It Can Be Told: Five Redacted Questions From Michael Phelps Swim Club’s Half-Baked Maryland Health Department Report on Drowned Teenager Louis Lowenthal
February 20, 2013

As we’ve been reporting, Maryland law requires a public pool owner to file a report with the state Department of Health & Mental Hygiene within a day of any drowning or near-drowning incident. Yet after 14-year-old North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer Louis Lowenthal was pulled from a pool in cardiopulmonary arrest on October 28, 2012, the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center took three days (or until the day he was pronounced dead, after being on life support so that some of his organs could be added to donation banks).

The tardiness of the incident report is just one of the questions casting shadows over this episode. In the absence of aggressive follow-up by health officials, they combine to make a mockery of pool safety law. That this is all happening, outrage-free, at the home of the most famous youth swim program in the country — which domiciles the eponymous swimming school of its most famous alum and co-owner, Michael Phelps — only underscores the crisis in common sense of America’s starry-eyed sports parents. Basic health and safety vs. the power of the Olympic brand? No contest.

In what appears to be either a word-parsing lawyer’s trick or an outright lie, the Baltimore pool report (viewable at http://muchnick.net/meadowbrookreport.pdf) suggests that three lifeguards were watching when young Lowenthal went down. In fact, there were no lifeguards in any of the guard chairs shown on the appended diagram. From Baltimore sources, I’ve heard two accounts of who performed CPR on the boy after he was discovered unconscious (having gone undetected in the water for a period estimated as long as 20 minutes). In one version, it was a swimming teammate. In another version, it was a front-office employee who was not a lifeguard.

Even with the unexplained and self-proclaimed two days’ grace before filing the report, the aquatic center’s general manager John Cadigan, who doubles as Phelps coach Bob Bowman’s operations chief for the swim team, represents that what happened is “unknown at this time.” So what has the state health department done in the ensuing four months to make it known? Was there follow-up on this report? Were inspectors or investigators dispatched? Inevitably, a threshold of lives is claimed every year in public pool accidents. But when they happen, it would be nice to know that government regulators were doing their utmost to glean appropriate lessons and prevent recurrences.

The only post-Lowenthal action of which I’m aware is a swim club-sponsored clinic on shallow water blackout syndrome. This is the equivalent of educating dinner guests on the proper use of knives after someone has bled to death on the kitchen floor while neighbors in the living room sipped sherry.

I put gentle variations of these questions to Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene officials on Monday, as soon as I received the report — plus another question: Five redacted lines of the released report need to restore at least the original questions on the state’s form, even if the responses themselves contain confidential information. A department spokesperson told me they hoped to respond by today. Whenever they provide a statement, I’ll publish it.

 

Irv Muchnick
tips@muchnick.net

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