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Alumni Spotlight: Courtney Hopkins Mann, Taking action against childhood drownings

Taking action against childhood drownings

By Aïda Rogers

Courtney Hopkins Mann dreads summers. As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, she knows inevitably she will have to tell a parent their child has died or sustained a permanent disability as a result of drowning and there is nothing more she could have done. But in 2008, Mann, ’89 Honors chemistry, finally had enough. When a seven-year-old girl drowned in water so shallow “she could have stood up in it,” she and her colleague took action. They decided to create a device that could alert adults that their children were in trouble before it was too late.

“We were tired of seeing children die needlessly,” said Mann, a Hartsville native who practices in Raleigh. “People can argue all they want that parents should be watching, but things happen quickly and parents are human. The perception is that when you’re drowning, you’re thrashing and making noise and people will notice you, but what we know is they quietly slip under the water. They’re not thrashing. This idea that you can see a child in the process of drowning is not real. Lifeguards do the best they can, but there had to be a better way.”

That better way is the SEAL SwimSafe Monitoring System, which she helped develop with Dr. Graham Snyder, who was working with Mann in Raleigh when they tried to save that little girl. The system, which has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek magazine, and on The Today Show, took years and “dozens and dozens and dozens” of engineers to design. It also took many years of Snyder and Mann “bootstrapping” it themselves—putting their own money into hiring engineers to create something that would work.

“The difficulty we faced initially raising capital was a heartbreaking reality and a significant initial hurdle. People seemed willing to give money for any new technology game or app, but when you started talking about child safety, they became skittish,” Mann recalled. “They were not eager to jump into that entrepreneurial pool, because what we were doing had never been done. We were venturing into an entirely new area with no clearly defined market. The majority of our initial capital was raised from physicians and small angel groups who believed in the mission we were trying to accomplish. It was not until the idea of wearable technology became more common that we finally gained more traction.”

A two-part system, SwimSafe consists of colorful, lightweight bands swimmers wear around their necks and a hub that stays in constant contact with those bands. When swimmers submerge past the time set for their level of ability, the hub lights up and sounds an alarm. Portable and easy to use, it nevertheless represents years of testing, revisions, and work with radio frequency, antennas, complex computer programming algorithms and waterproofing. 

“The final product is light years away from the draft we made years ago,” Mann said. “We had some general ideas that generated our original patents, but it took a lot of other great minds to overcome what we didn’t see. We’re just the ones who wouldn’t give up. We are passionate about saving the lives of children and, well, we were just naïve enough to believe we could fix this problem. We kept pushing it.”

The statistics alone kept Mann and Snyder going. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children younger than five, now surpassing motor vehicle accidents in many states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eighty-eight percent of children who drown are under adult supervision, 70 percent of them preschoolers. “And what the stats won’t tell you is the number of children who are permanently disabled after long submersion. It’s a larger problem than statistics indicate. It’s a horrible problem in Florida and other Sunbelt states. We have nurses from Florida who say it’s a weekly occurrence.”

The crisis baffled and frustrated Mann and Snyder. “With so many technological advances in the world, why hadn’t we come up with a way to stop drownings?”

Snyder, an engineer as well as ER physician, and Mann started SEAL Innovation, the company that produces the system. Snyder is CEO; Mann, as cofounder, is a board member and adviser. SwimSafe has been designed for both commercial applications—YMCAs, city pools, lake-based camps—as well as for individuals and families who use pools or boats.

The system is not just for children either. Anyone who goes in the water is a candidate for the technology, when you consider the possibility of a medical emergency such as a heart attack or seizure while swimming.

Multiple YMCAs around the country, including the Raleigh YMCA and Triangle YMCA, have implemented the system. So has Princess Cruise Lines, among other cruise lines. All have reported positive results.

“One of the most pleasant surprises was just how much the kids really like wearing the device,” Mann said. “They are so used to technology that they even clamored to get one in our initial testing.”

She’s gratified to know there’s something in place that can be an extra layer of protection people can use to help prevent tragedy.

“We hope to see this end up being as ubiquitous as bicycle helmets,” she said. “Just this past summer alone, over a period of one single week, I had three drownings in the ER. I walk into these rooms and I’m thinking, ‘this is so unnecessary. We have technology to get this done. We must move even faster.’”

The first medical doctor in her family, Mann says she comes from a long line of educators and engineers. Veering into research, product development, and business came after earning a medical degree from Vanderbilt University, emergency medicine residency at the University of Cincinnati and a fellowship in pediatric emergency medicine at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, where she met her husband, internist Scott Mann. The Manns made sure their children—now teenagers—were strong swimmers before relaxing with them near water. “I was so afraid of my child drowning that I wouldn’t even let my husband supervise both children without me. Man-to-man defense at the pool or no one went swimming. It was not a popular stance!”

Though she has no intention of leaving medicine—she also is director of the UNC fellowship program in pediatric emergency medicine—Mann is glad she detoured temporarily into another realm. “Medicine is so consuming, and this is a breath of fresh air to realize there are a lot of bright people doing a lot of cool things in the world. It is humbling to think we can have an impact too.”