Meet Samira and JJ

Back in 1978, she was Nadina, mother of two beautiful toddlers. Samira was two, big sister to baby JJ (Jerry Joseph), who was fourteen months old and just learning to walk.

That was before she became The Fence Lady.

Like most couples with small children, date night was something to look forward to. Nadina called a babysitter and she and her husband Richard got dressed up and went out for Mexican food. Just those few hours without children, to focus on each other and their marriage, were a huge occasion.

Back at home, the 16-year-old babysitter did what most babysitters do. She gave the kids grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner and opened the sliding glass door to let the dog out when he whined. Knowing she’d be letting him back in shortly, she left the door unlocked. While the kids watched cartoons after dinner, the babysitter went to the bathroom. When she returned, mere minutes later, she saw the sliding glass door standing wide open. The kids were no longer in the living room. Panicked, she raced outside to find them, only to see both children floating face down in the swimming pool.

Her terrified shrieks brought the neighbors running. They called 911 and did CPR on both of Nadina’s precious toddlers. Nadina and her husband were called at the restaurant. They sped to the emergency room, only to find that Samira was already dead. In fact, she’d been pronounced dead on arrival. She was so tiny. Once she got into the water, Samira never stood a chance.

JJ is now 40 years old and the monthly cost of his care is $30,000.

Samira’s death was horrific. It was preventable. But the tragedy didn’t end there. JJ survived, but survived into a life Nadina and her family never imagined.

In 1979, after a full year in the hospital receiving 24-hour-care, Nadina and Richard were told that the doctors couldn’t do anything further to improve JJ’s condition. They needed to find a placement for JJ, or take him home with a round the clock nurse. Given the trach tube in his throat for breathing, and a stomach tube for feeding, his care was a full time job. JJ couldn’t speak. He didn’t walk. He didn’t even have a blink reflex. JJ was permanently, severely damaged.

Nadina fought the school system for years. It took grit, determination and an army of attorneys, but JJ did graduate from high school. He was home for 25 years with full time nursing care, no quiet, and no privacy. While the couple did go on to have two more sons, the accident ultimately destroyed their marriage.

When her husband arrived at the hospital and saw little Samira, water still draining from her ears, lying lifeless there in the ER, he fell to the ground. Samira was Daddy’s little girl. On top of that, being a very private person, Richard just couldn’t handle the nurses and other caretakers coming in and out of their home at all hours, year after year. Nadina and Richard couldn’t agree on JJ’s care. They argued over keeping him home or moving him to a long term care facility. Seeing JJ every day served as a constant reminder of their massive loss. The marriage simply couldn’t survive the accident.

Nadina’s whole life changed on that day in 1978. She spent the year JJ was hospitalized educating herself on the epidemic of drowning. She spent day after at his bedside, reading. Researching.

Facing the reality that this tragedy could have been prevented, Nadina began advocating for policy change, insisting that pool fencing could save lives. She did radio interviews and public service announcements, earning the title “The Fence Lady.” In 1985, Nadina flew to Washington DC to meet with Consumer Product Safety  Commissioners. She educated them about child drowning, suggesting they conduct their own drowning study. They followed her advice, and a year later, confirmed that child drowning rates for kids aged four and under were at the highest around backyard pools. To this day, that’s still the case in many States.

Nadina advocated for a full year before the board of supervisors in Contra Costa county to pass a revolutionary new regulation in California: an isolation permanent pool fence with self-locking gate. She faced intense opposition from the pool industry lobby, but she only pushed harder, convincing the supervisors to pass her law. The new law went into effect in November of 1984; it was the first fence law in the world, setting a precedent that has been followed internationally.

In 1996, she and her loyal band of volunteers and like-minded supporters pushed the State of California to pass AB3305 for stricter pool regulations, and now, in 2017, an upgraded, stronger pool safety law, SB442, went through at her insistence. It’s the strongest pool safety law in the nation!

Nadina has been advocating for pool safety for the last 30 years. She founded the Drowning Prevention Foundation to prevent this type of preventable tragedy from tearing more families apart. They are a nonprofit which still requires your financial support to continue funding their critical educational campaigns.

The disaster that claimed her two children happened in a matter of minutes. When the sitter returned to the living room, the dog was in the house, Samira was dead and JJ was severely and irreversibly damaged. The sitter had innocently run to the bathroom and left the door unlocked. That was all. They were babies. And they’ll never grow up.

Don’t let Nadina’s story become your story.

Kath O'Malley