When an accident sweeps away the life of a child or, even worse, when there are several taken at the same time, the earth shakes. Instead of being buried in rubble, those left behind are covered with sorrow and crushed with guilt.
The parents have lost their baby or their laughing and smiling preschooler. We cry for them. Then there is the second outcry of "Why did it happen?" or a judging "Why did they let it happen?" Accidents happen, we say. Accidents shouldn't happen, we shout. There are acts of God, we answer; there are errors of men, we respond.
Meanwhile, we look on as a community, with both tears and fire in our eyes. The scene is so painful we just don't want it to happen again to any child or to any family. Every accident has a root cause. It happens because a series of events line up in a row escaping all of the safeguards in place to prevent it. For most, the ultimate barrier to a fatal accident is the parent, but a parent cannot and, it could be said, should not be at the side of a child every moment, awake or asleep.
But even with this parental armor, there are still accidents. Children drown in pools; children are struck down or run over by their own parents or neighbors; they fall; they crash; they wander off; they are poisoned by fumes intended for vermin. What about these parents? Are they less worthy to be called a caring mother or father? No, and yet the children will have died in vain unless the rest of us learn a lesson that only the power of death can teach.
We all have children or are around children, therefore we must think about the different protections between the child and the accident. If there is a pool, is there a fence? How easy is it to enter the gate? Are there other protective steps built in? Are weapons stored properly? Where is the ammunition? Gun control should be gun safety and injury prevention.
Our homes are virtual toxic waste dumps with the number of cleaning products, fuel and organic compounds, even without buying agents whose sole purpose is to kill. Fumes from gas leaks, radon rays, paints and solvents are silent stalkers of children, yet there are instructions that too often we ignore. We don't read them or don't follow them. Sometimes we are alarm-overloaded. It seems everything carries a warning label, so soon we stop thinking — because all things are dangerous, therefore nothing is.
But if we start to think and act, then safety will increase. If we back up slowly after circling our vehicle as if there were children playing behind the behemoth vehicles we drive as if lives depended upon it, there would be fewer accidents involving children being run over. If we slow down in residential areas as if expecting children to run out into the street chasing balls or dogs, there would be fewer tragedies. If we look at the various bodies of water from a tub and a toilet to a swimming pool as if we were curious toddlers, we could prevent drowning. If we store materials as if they are as poisonous as the labels say they are, we could avert sorrow beyond measure. If fireworks are handled as if they could blow off a child's leg, we would act differently at celebrations. If we had our children wear seat belts and used appropriate car seats as if there were going to be a crash, children would be safer. If we had children wear helmets on bikes and in sports where the brain is at risk as if the brain mattered, we would have fewer headaches. The goal is to place as many obstacles in the way of harm as possible.
Nothing we do will bring back children killed by accidents. But if we act as if, we won't have to.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at email@example.com.