Letter: Warning students about the dangers of cold water

In memory of Jacob Johnson


(Collegian file photo)

Temperatures were averaging in the 50s during the day in April 2018. Some days, the thermometer didn’t rise above 40. Spring was cold last year. Not like some of the years when we could see 80s in April. I think it’s safe to say that most of us were reveling in the warm 80-degree days when the first week of May rolled around. Winter coats, hats and boots still within sight in our homes and cars, but flip-flops and summer attire had found their way into our lives. The semester was almost over. One final after another. Papers submitted. Graduation. Summer plans. Life plans. Talking to each other on the grass in Northeast. The grass in Southwest. Puffer’s Pond. That’s where my nephew, Jacob Johnson, drowned on May 4, 2018, at just 21 years old.

He was enjoying the sun. Feeling its warmth. Wanting to cool off in the water that had lost its ice covering. It was refreshing. But it was probably no more than 50 degrees, which is a temperature that, according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, is “immediately life-threatening.” It can cause “a total loss of breathing control” and “maximum intensity cold shock” while the person is “unable to control gasping and hyperventilation.” And that is when we lost Jacob. As he and a friend thought they would swim and cool off. And his friend made it to shore. And he did not. His body was found in Puffer’s Pond hours later.

I have put off trying to write something to help warn the students at the University that I attended. To try to say, please be careful. Not of the late nights out or of illicit drugs, or of making one bad decision that could impact the rest of your life. But of the sparkling water reflecting in the sun on a warm spring day.

I sat with my family at Jacob’s graduation from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences the following weekend. And through tears and disbelief (that I still feel to this day), I listened to professors who knew Jacob remark on where he was headed.

So I have told myself that I will try to educate for the rest of my life. Because Jacob will not be the last person who will leave this realm in this way. Be aware of our environment. Respect water for its life-giving qualities, its serenity, its danger.



Nicole R. Gauthier Croteau, RN, BSN

UMass ’97

Jacob’s Aunt