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A year ago Sophie almost drowned in a pond. She came back to Children’s Hospital to thank those who saved her life.

When Sophie’s mother asked her what she wanted to say to everybody, she happily chirped, “Thank you for saving my life.”

by July 6, 2018

Sophie Levitin is very grateful to all those who cared for her at Children’s Hospital. She came back to say thank you. Photo by Joe Howell.

Five-year-old Sophie Levitin had a message for the doctors, nurses and other clinicians gathered in a room in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

When Sophie’s mother, Devorah Levitin, asked her what she wanted to say to everybody, she happily chirped, “Thank you for saving my life.”

Sophie puts her all into a hug with Brian Bridges, MD. Photo by Joe Howell

Sophie’s blue eyes peered through her lavender glasses as she smiled and wrapped her tiny arms around each person. As her mom and dad looked on, she braided a nurse’s hair, blew bubbles and handed out candy with her three sisters, Rozy, 10, Sarah, 9, and Emma, 3.

Everyone was smiling and happy as the busy 5-year-old made the rounds with hugs.

It was a very different scene a year ago to that day — June 25, 2017 — when Sophie was at the hospital fighting for her life after a near-drowning.

Sophie’s mom had first learned CPR when she was a 13-year-old babysitter and had maintained her certification over the years. Now, that training kicked in.

“We have the best job in the world, but at the same time we have cases that don’t turn out as well as Sophie’s,” said Brian Bridges, MD, associate professor of Pediatrics and one of Sophie’s doctors.

“To see Sophie, who was so sick and on the ventilator, come back and be completely normal, it was so rewarding. She’s going to outlive all of us and have children of her own. It’s about the most gratifying thing.”

“Where’s Sophie?”

The terror that night began with a simple question: “Where’s Sophie?”

Levitin, 31, mother of four busy girls, asked the question with no worry in her voice at first. The family, who lives in New York, were visiting friends in Fairview, Tennessee. It was a long summer evening when daylight lingered past dinner and it was getting close to bedtime for the girls.

Family friend, 10-year-old Matthew Ward, and one of Sophie’s sisters were swimming in a pond on the property, getting the most playtime in at the end of the day.

She saw something that brought her heart into her throat. “I saw blonde hair floating in the pond.” 

“I was calling Sophie’s name and I don’t know what it was — mother’s instinct, intuition, or whatever you want to call it, I just knew I needed to check the pond,” Levitin said.

Sophie was in intensive care as she began her recovery. Photo courtesy Levitin family

The two children in the pond hadn’t seen Sophie lately, but when Levitin began sweeping her eyes over the water, she saw something that brought her heart into her throat.

“I saw blonde hair floating in the pond,” she said.

She screamed Sophie’s name, and 10-year-old Matthew quickly swam to the area of the pond where Sophie was, grabbing her arms and pulling her to the bank.

She was soaked, her skin was gray and her body was limp. It was terrifying.

“I figured she was dead,” Levitin said. “I wasn’t crying; [I was acting on] adrenaline going through my body.”

But it wasn’t only adrenaline; it was also training. Levitin had first learned CPR when she was a 13-year-old babysitter and had maintained her certification over the years. Now, that training kicked in.

She, along with a friend who was at the gathering that evening, performed CPR and chest compressions on Sophie. Meanwhile, Matthew, who had pulled Sophie to shore, called 911. In the way of small towns, he reached a familiar voice on the other end of the line — his mother, Dani Denten, who is a 911 dispatcher and was on duty.

She quickly directed responders to the rural home and kept her son on the line until the first responders arrived seven minutes later.

Those seven minutes of CPR on her pond-drenched, slippery, unconscious daughter were the longest of Levitin’s life.

“It felt like forever,” she said.

From critical condition to home

First responders continued to work with Sophie in the ambulance on the way to Vanderbilt. Levitin was riding in the front, listening as EMS workers fought to save her daughter’s life.

“Sophie wasn’t conscious and her little body was struggling,” she said. “At one point I heard her make this noise like she was trying to breathe. I looked at the ambulance driver with hope and he said that she wasn’t out of the woods.”

The staff at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, alerted that Sophie was on her way, sprang into action as she arrived. They began work to stabilize her and try to save her life.

“The staff made us feel that Sophie’s well-being was the most important thing to them, and [they were always devoted to] how we felt and could be comforted.”

Levitin recalls being in total shock. She struggled to call her husband, Sam, who was still at the family home in New York. She wasn’t even sure she would be able to get any words out, so a friend made the call for her. Sam immediately made plans to fly to Nashville. As word spread, family and friends rallied in support of the family.

A year ago Kori Renick, RN, was one of the nurses who cared for Sophie in the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospital. On Sophie’s return visit, they blew bubbles together. Photo by Joe Howell

But it wasn’t clear what the future held for Sophie. She was in critical condition, unconscious, intubated, had frequent fevers, and had infection in her lungs.

Levitin admitted there were times when she was disheartened by Sophie’s condition, but she was buoyed by the attitude of those caring for her daughter. “The doctors had great expectations of Sophie. The doctors never gave up,” she said.

Sophie’s three sisters also struggled to understand and deal with the tragedy.

“I didn’t want to talk about it at first,” her eldest sister Rozy said.

When the girls came to the hospital to visit their sister, they were helped by Child Life specialists, who guided them to talk about and work through what had happened to Sophie.

Sophie did her part, too; she began to recover. She opened her eyes. She could communicate. She was weaned off the ventilator, and the tide began to turn against the infection in her body.

“She was always fighting,” Levitin said. “The staff made us feel that Sophie’s well-being was the most important thing to them, and [they were always devoted to] how we felt and could be comforted.”

The year of saying thank you

Sophie’s initial CPR by the pond side lasted seven minutes.

The ride to the hospital from Fairview took 23 minutes.

And after eight days in the hospital, Sophie went home.

The decision Levitin made as a teenage babysitter to learn CPR likely ended up saving her daughter’s life. The family gives talks and interviews advocating for CPR training.

The Levitins have made it a point in the past year to thank everyone — including first responders, dispatchers, now the team at Vanderbilt — who helped save Sophie’s life.

Sophie, right, her mom, dad and sister Emma, during the recent visit to Vanderbilt. The family now spends time educating others about the importance of CPR. Photo by Joe Howell

They’ve also taken the opportunity to advocate for CPR certification. The decision Levitin made as a teenage babysitter to learn CPR likely ended up saving her daughter’s life. The family gives talks and interviews advocating for CPR training.

The Levitins are in the process of relocating from New York to Nashville. Sophie, who has a few residual issues from her injuries, including epilepsy, will continue her treatment at a place where she now knows and loves so many people.

“Every staff member at Children’s Hospital — doctors, nurses, therapists — needs to know that they each make a difference,” Levitin said. “Without the work of each and every one of them, our experience would not have been the same.”

On the day Sophie came back to say thanks, one of the Children’s Hospital nurses she hugged was Kori Renick, RN.

“As an emergency department team, it is rare for us to get to celebrate success stories and happy endings with the families we care for — so this was amazing,” Renick said. “To know she is doing well just brings a new perspective. I love what I do and I am so happy to be a part of an amazing team in the pediatric ED that helps care for kiddos like Sophie.

“And I appreciate the family for letting us be a part of this day with them.”

As Sophie made her way around the room, hugging and thanking those who cared for her, one of her stops was with Richard Wendorf, MD. Photo by Joe Howell

Children’s Emergency Department nurse Rachael Pridgeon RN, was another recipient of a Sophie thank you hug. Photo by Joe Howell

Lydia Colley, RN, clinical staff leader in PICU, got a tiptoe hug from Sophie. Photo by Joe Howell

A year after Sophie almost drowned in a pond, she and her sisters returned for a swim there, along with family friend Alyssa Ward, center. “I don’t want my children to fear water,” explained Devorah Levitin. Photo courtesy Levitin family.

CPR, Levitin family, Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital, Trauma, Safety, Kori Renick, Brian Bridges, Emergency Medicine, Pediatrics