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Human Interest

Father of 4-Year-Old Boy Who Died of ‘Dry Drowning’ Speaks Out: ‘This Could Happen to Anyone’

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A Texas father is struggling to come to terms with the death of his 4-year-old son, who died of a rare condition called “dry drowning” nearly a week after a swimming trip.

“We’d never heard of [dry drowning]. He had too much water in his lungs and that’s what sent him to Heaven,” Frankie Delgado, 35, tells PEOPLE of his young son, Frankie Delgado III (whom the family calls “Baby Frankie”) following his shocking death. “I love my son so much. My son was my best friend. I played with my son every day. Now I can’t play with him anymore.”

Delgado says he, Frankie, his wife and three daughters went to Texas City Dike on May 28 ahead of Memorial Day. There, the boy was in knee-deep water when a large wave came in, knocking him over. Delgado says he believes that was the moment his son inhaled the water.

“This is real and this could happen to anyone,” the father tells PEOPLE. “I lost [Frankie] and I’ll never see him again.”

The Delgado Family

Dry drowning occurs after a child inhales water through the nose or mouth and the liquid gets into the lungs, Purva Grover from the Cleveland Children’s Clinic told USA Today. The lungs can then become irritated from the water and fill with fluid resulting in respiratory problems, brain damage or even death.

“I Don’t Want Anyone to Go Through What I’m Going Through”

In the days following the family’s swimming trip, little Frankie would wake up in the middle of the night vomiting and suffering from diarrhea.

“Him throwing up, vomiting, there’s nothing uncommon about that,” the father says. “We didn’t think [Frankie] was gonna pass away or anything like that.”

Delgado and little Frankie slept at his sister’s home on Friday night. There, Delgado says, the boy woke up once complaining about shoulder pains and later shot up from his bed again.

The Delgado Family

“He just grabbed his chest and screamed. He took a deep breath and his eyes kind of rolled back, then he laid back down,” Delgado recalls. “I got up, I said, ‘Frankie, wake up!’ All of a sudden, he exhaled. I picked up his shirt and I couldn’t see his [chest] moving.”

Frankie was rushed to East Houston Regional Medical Center where doctors told the family that the boy had lacked oxygen to his brain for over an hour. He passed away about an hour later, leaving the family heartbroken and confused.

“Me and my wife, we’re at a loss for words. I don’t want anybody to go through what I’m going through,” Delgado tells PEOPLE through tears. “I’m never taking my kids to beaches, [water] ponds or lakes … I can’t deal with this again.”

Now, Delgado says he’s hoping his tragic story could raise awareness for other parents with young children.

“I’m not going to be able to see him become a man. I’m not going to be able to see him graduate. I’m not going be able to show him how to be a gentleman,” he says. “I can’t help but to cry, because that was my little man … it hurts.”

How to Spot Dry Drowning — and How to Prevent it

The Delgado Family

Symptoms of dry drowning can include coughing, fever, vomiting, mood swings and struggling for breath, according to USA Today. Symptoms could appear 24 to 48 hours after inhaling water.

Dr. Ray Pitetti, with the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, told NBC that there is no way to predict which children will experience secondary drowning, although kids with respiratory issues, like asthma, are more susceptible to lung problems.

“If a kid chokes or sputters after going under water but seems fine, he doesn’t need to go to the hospital,” Pitetti said. “But if several hours later he starts breathing faster and is finding it harder to breathe and starts coughing a lot, then you want to bring him in.”

Symptoms or fatal results of dry drowning could occur hours or even days after a child inhales the water, according to USA Today.

The Delgado family created a GoFundMe page to help them raise money for funeral expenses. Frankie’s funeral will be held Saturday at Compean Funeral Home.