Michelle Ostler

"I went from being a parent to being a carer and teacher"

When Michelle Oster’s daughter Jewel was just a month away from her third birthday the unthinkable happened. She was staying at a relative’s place for the weekend and made her way into the swimming pool. On a 5 acre property no-one saw her fall and finding her was difficult, so she was at the bottom of the pool for 15 minutes.

While enjoying a rare child free weekend Michelle had been walking along the beach with a friend when she received the phone call to tell her what had happened to her daughter. The family had only just moved states 3 months before so Michelle didn’t yet have a car and was a three hour drive from where Jewel’s accident had happened.

Her friend offered to drive her the one and a half hours to the hospital, and on the way there another call came through to say Jewel had stopped breathing. More paramedics and a doctor had been called to assist the ambulance crew, but Michelle had to get to her daughter fast.

Once she arrived at the hospital what greeted Michelle was a sea of doctors, she says “all I saw was her foot poking out from under a blanket and rows of people around her. My first instinct was to go to her but I knew that could put her life at risk. So I let the doctors do what they need to do and I went to find my sons.”

Jewels brothers, who were 10 and 8 at the time, had been at the relative’s house when the incident happened. They’d witnessed Jewel being pulled from the pool and the mad dash to the hospital to save her life. Michelle knew they needed her at that time perhaps even more than Jewel did!

The next 24 hours were a blur. Jewel was in emergency for hours as doctors fought to save her life. Michelle says “Later that night I was told by a doctor that a CT scan they’d performed on Jewel showed that every single part of her brain had some sort of damage, and her surviving the night might not be possible. There were organ donor people there wanting to talk to me, but I wasn’t ready for that yet, I couldn’t give up hope.”

Jewel did survive that first night, but doctors said that when she woke up she would perhaps have 100% brain damage. One doctor said it was one of the worst cases he’d been involved with of having to fight for a child’s life who’d been under water for so long.Jewel laying in a hospital bed with tubes attached to her

Jewel was placed in an induced coma for three days to try to give her brain a rest. Just before she came out of the coma Michelle started playing music to her because one of the nurses had read a study saying it could help. Jewel’s brother Seth wanted to be in the room with her and know what was happening and what all the machines were doing. As the music was playing Seth said to Jewel “Hi Jewel how are you, I can’t wait to play with you again” and she grabbed for his arm to give him a hug. After that they had to fight for the rest of the night to keep her asleep because she was due for an MRI scan in the morning and it’s easier if the child is asleep and not moving.

The MRI scan the following day came back all clear, which surprised all the medical staff! The ambulance crews came to visit Jewel because they heard she was alive and realized it was a miracle after what they had seen. The doctors concluded that the fact the accident had happened in August while the pool water was still freezing cold had caused Jewel’s brain to go into a state of “slow motion” which had protected it from damage.

Although her miracle survival was a cause of great joy, Jewel wasn’t the same girl who had fallen in the pool that day. Michelle says “Before the accident Jewel was a bright, vibrant happy two year old who would talk to anyone. When we got home it became clear she had lost a lot of her speech. She could say two words “Mum” and “No”.”

Michelle and her family’s life was forever changed. “I went from being a parent to being a carer and teacher. Jewel didn’t want to have a bath so that became a battle every day, and I had to try to make it fun for her. All three of the kids needed to relearn how to get back into the water. Jewel had chronic fatigue and didn’t want to do anything, and her words were just not coming back” says Michelle.

No amount of calls to child health clinics got her fast-tracked for treatment and by the time she was able to see a speech therapist they realized Jewel had needed the help sooner. It was discovered that Jewel had a speech and language delay and executive brain functioning issues, and there was a long road ahead.

Jewel with her two brothers standing under an archThe drowning had happened in Queensland and eventually living close to where it had happened became too much. The boys couldn’t cope with travelling past the petrol station where the ambulance had stopped so paramedics could get Jewel breathing again. They couldn’t face going to the home where the drowning happened. So the family moved back to Perth for a new start.

Life is still a challenge, but Jewel is working hard to make progress with her language and is determined to catch up with her brothers and read the “Harry Potter” series! She’s now in Year 1 and while she’s still 6-12 months behind her classmates in the area of language she is making progress.

Michelle says she just wants to make the best of life for her children and give them the support they need. “After the accident there were days when I would just be on the floor crying. It was so hard to comprehend how this could have happened to my daughter. And now I have two teenage sons who are living through the trauma of seeing their sister pulled from the pool, and travelling to hospital with people fighting for her life. It still affects our life now 4 years later.”

She has one message for other parents with small children “Always be vigilant. Never think you can leave the pool gate open because your children have had swimming lessons so you think they’re OK. You need to always be supervising your kids - that’s the number one message I would give.”

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