Morgan Mathews is trained to save people’s lives. But having worked as a lifeguard the last four summers, he hoped he’d never have to.

Last week, his rescue skills helped save a young child’s life after a near-drowning at Hays Aquatic Park.

Mathews said he noticed something “didn’t look right” about how an almost 3-year-old girl was behaving in the deeper end of the zero-depth entry pool. He made the decision to jump in and check on the toddler — a split-second decision that could have made the difference between life and death. The child was unconscious and had stopped breathing.

“For me, as soon as I rolled her over and saw her face, it was instinct,” he said. “There was no hesitation about it. I knew I had to get this girl breathing again.”

Thankfully, the necessary rescue skills were fresh in his mind, as the lifeguard had just reviewed CPR earlier that week. He also remembers immediately sounding three sharp blasts on his whistle, effectively launching the pool staff’s emergency action plan.

“I knew that since she was in the water, you do two rescue breaths and start chest compressions,” he said. “Thankfully, after two rescue breaths, she came about. It was a very terrifying experience and I hope I never have to do it again. I hope no one else here ever has to do it again.”

The little girl, Joanna Hodges, is expected to make a full recovery. The incident happened July 19. Exactly one week later, Mathews was reunited with the child he helped save.

The near-drowning event is every parent’s nightmare, but Gwen and Daniel Hodges of Hays thanked Mathews for their happy ending during a mayoral proclamation honoring the lifeguard Wednesday evening. Joanna had been looking forward to seeing her hero again, and presented Mathews with a token of thanks -- a silver whistle.

“It’s hard,” Gwen said, as she fought back tears. “Words seem to come up short when you’re thanking somebody for saving a life, but we are so grateful. The weight of our gratitude has been heavy at times in the last week, but we are just so appreciative.

“We hope that’s never lost on you,” she told Mathews. “You will always be an important person to our family.”

Always prepared

Every summer, Grant Lacy trains his staff of 50 lifeguards with the skills they would need to help swimmers in distress.

“We do our best to train them,” said Lacy, Hays Recreation Commission’s aquatics director. “And you never know how somebody’s going to respond to an incident in real life.”

Hays lifeguards are required to complete a 35-hour American Red Cross training program before beginning work. That program teaches first aid and CPR, as well as a variety of other rescue skills. Lifeguards also must meet physical endurance requirements and complete two additional inservice training programs each month.

There are approximately 50 lifeguards on staff at Hays Aquatic Park, with 17 present each day. The lifeguards generally are young employees who work at the pool while on break from high school or college classes.

Last Wednesday’s emergency call is the only one Lacy remembers during his time with HRC. He began working at the pool as a 15-year-old lifeguard.

“We’ve been lucky that we haven’t had something of this magnitude happen,” he said. “But I am very proud of my staff and how they responded.”

Lifeguards don’t have an easy job, as drowning can happen fast — especially in young children — and victims aren’t always able to call out or signal for help, he said.

Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 4, according to Pool Safely, a water safety initiative launched by the federal government.

There were 162 drowning-related deaths in Kansas between the years of 2009 to 2013. For every death, there were more than twice as many near-drownings, according to information from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The best way to keep young children safe in the water — whether at the pool, the lake or even in the bathtub — is to ensure there is constant adult supervision, experts say. In a group of adults at a social event, safety officials recommend one person be designated as a “water watcher,” meaning it is that person’s job to watch children in the pool without distractions.

While accidents always can happen in an instant -- even with guardians nearby -- it’s important for children who are not proficient swimmers to have constant supervision, even if lifeguards are present.

“The bottom line is, if you have kids that are young and not real skilled at swimming, they need to have an adult with them at all times,” said Roger Bixenman, HRC superintendent.

The pool also offers U.S. Coast Guard-certified life jackets that can be borrowed by swimmers at no cost.

Bixenman said families should feel safe coming to Hays swimming pools, noting the community has had only one incident in many years. It also is reassuring that staff and emergency protocols responded exactly as they should, he said.

“What’s important to know is the drowning process can happen quickly,” Lacy said. “Not everybody will yell out for help or wave their arms or anything like that. So it is a very difficult job the lifeguards have to do here.”

HRC and city officials have said they are “very proud” of the Hays lifeguard for keeping his composure and thinking quickly in last week's accident.

Mathews — a University of Kansas student home for the summer — was recognized with a mayoral proclamation at city hall Wednesday evening, and said he has been overwhelmed by the community’s support. He even was presented with a key to the City of Hays, which are not often given.

“People have been telling me thank you. People have been reaching out to my parents and telling them how proud they are of me,” Mathews said. “People have even been calling my aunt in Dodge City and saying that they’re so proud of me. … People have just been showing so much thanks and appreciation.”