Thank goodness for friends near water
A piece of wood, slip-knotted through a rope that dangles from a cottonwood tree, sends shivers down Kennedy Wahlgren’s spine.
Ten days before, 14-year-old Kennedy floated unconscious in the lake underneath the rope swing.
This day was first time she’d been back to the place where the accident happened.
When she shoved off and everything went black.
* * *
Earlier that day, Kennedy had climbed in a canoe at her family cabin with a best friend Hailey Budd.
Together the 14-year-old Gothenburg ninth graders paddled to a cove that is partially hidden from the main part of Jeffrey Lake.
To a place where kids gather to play sand volleyball under colored lights. Where they glide down a slide or sit around a fire, laughing and listening to music.
Or launch themselves into the bay by a rope swing.
“I’d never been off it before and decided to go off,” Kennedy said. “I thought it would be fun.”
The lake had been calm when the friends canoed over to hang out with two brothers from Evergreen, CO, who have a cabin near the mouth of the cove.
As Kennedy got ready to swing, Hailey said she noticed clouds moving in. The wind began to blow.
Hailey also had a bad feeling.
“I told Kennedy I didn’t think it was a good idea,” she said. “I told her not to do it.”
* * *
Hailey once had that feeling while riding in her mother’s car in the country.
“I told my Mom to slow down,” she said.
As they rounded a bend, a herd of deer crossed their path.
* * *
Hailey watched as Kennedy’s feet struck the seawall.
She saw how her friend fell back, hitting her head on the wall before falling into the lake.
“She went in and came back up doing the dead man’s float. She started sinking.”
Hailey leaped in, dove under and pulled Kennedy’s head and shoulders to the surface.
She tread water with her legs in about eight feet of lake as she struggled to keep Kennedy’s face from going under.
“I was trying to get her to the dock but was running out of energy,” Hailey said.
So she called to Addison Trower—one of the brothers from Colorado—who was in the vicinity but hadn’t seen the accident.
“Help. She hit her head.”
* * *
The Trower family fell in love with Jeffrey Lake several years ago during a visit to a part of Central Nebraska Public Power District’s system that creates hydroelectric power and provides water for irrigation.
Nestled in the loess hills six miles south of Brady, it’s the kind of place where kids can explore without parents fearing for their safety.
Where cabin owners socialize with each other and co-exist with blue heron, bullfrogs, deer and a myriad of wildlife.
Which is why the Trowers leave the city for the lake each summer.
* * *
On this day, Luther Trower—the boys’ father—was installing wood flooring in the family cabin when Parker burst through the door.
“Kennedy got hurt off the rope swing. Come quick.”
Moments before, both Addison, 15, and Parker, 14, had splashed into the lake and pulled an unconscious Kennedy from Hailey’s arms.
“Her head was barely above water but her eyes were open and rolling around,” Addison said. “It was creepy.”
The boys could tell their friend was breathing even though performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation crossed Addison’s mind.
Hailey and the boys swam Kennedy to a nearby dock where they hoisted her limp body.
Parker then ran to get his dad.
* * *
By the time Luther arrived, Kennedy was lying on the dock breathing but with her eyes closed.
After checking for blood around her head and the rest of her body, he tried to awaken her by asking questions.
“I wanted her to focus on me,” Luther said, noting that he suspected a concussion.
A nearby neighbor asked Luther if he wanted him to call 911.
“I said, ‘No, not yet. I think she’ll come around,’ ” Luther said.
As Kennedy slowly gained consciousness, he kept asking questions which she answered by shaking her head.
When she could talk, he asked where she hurt.
“The inside of my head,” was what Kennedy told him.
In the meantime, Addison had summoned Kennedy’s mother Diane Wahlgren who arrived to find her daughter lying on the dock.
But she was conscious and talking.
However when Kennedy started to sit up, she became nauseous which continued all the way to Great Plains Medical Center in North Platte.
On the way, they stopped at a bin site where Kennedy’s father Joe Wahlgren met them.
Later, it was determined that Kennedy had suffered a mild concussion and a mild skull fracture.
She spent two nights in the hospital before she was released with orders to keep away from physical activity for two weeks.
Despite a headache for several days, Kennedy convalesced and started lifting weights for summer volleyball practice last week.
* * *
From the experience, the Trowers learned the importance of staying in a group or with a friend while active around water.
Although both brothers said they typically do, it’s even more critical while in the water.
“Make sure you swim with a buddy,” Parker said.
Luther is grateful he knew how to react when Kennedy started showing symptoms of a concussion.
Because both of his boys belong to a ski program at Loveland Basin, CO, he’s spent time at the base infirmary where medical staff and the ski patrol take care of head and other injuries.
“For concussions, they always talk about keeping victims awake,” Luther said.
Knowing Kennedy personally made helping her more difficult.
“I struggled with that because it made me worry more,” he said.
Hailey said she learned how to stay calm during a crisis.
And she shrugs off the notion she did anything out of the ordinary.
Kennedy touches her arm.
“You saved my life. That was special.”