“Walk!” Pat Clare yells to a Fishtown youngster running along the edge of the Cione Rec Center pool before taking time out of her workday to talk to the Star. It’s just another day for Clare, who’s dressed in blue swim shorts and a white and red tank top emblazoned with a lifeguard’s cross. She’s been a lifeguard for about 30 years.
“It’s a really great summer job,” said Clare, who also works as an 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher at Lincoln High School in Mayfair. “You get to meet a lot of people your age. You get to mentor younger kids. It teaches discipline, and you make a good chunk of money for just six weeks of your time over the summer.”
But July 14, 2021 was not an ordinary day for Clare. For the first time in her lifeguarding career, she had to tend to a medical emergency in the water. In the corner of the pool, she found a little girl lying face down in the water. Something didn’t look right.
“I saw her face down and I thought she was playing the breath-holding game,” said Clare. “I ran over and I dropped my tube on her and she didn’t react, so I got in and I got her.”
With the help of a good Samaritan, Clare quickly got the little girl out of the pool. Meanwhile, another pool attendant, Liz Carpenter, called 911.
“I hear Pat scream, ‘Call 911, grab the board,’ just to stabilize her because we thought she had hurt her neck or something,” said Carpenter. “I’m on the phone with 911 and I’m telling them we just pulled a little girl out of the pool and she wasn’t responding. She was unconscious. I just gave them all the information.”
Clare noticed the little girl’s eyes rolled to the back of her head after pulling her from the pool. She knew what that meant: The little girl was having a seizure. She was breathing, and didn’t expel any water, which was good news: She hadn’t drowned. As EMS workers arrived soon after and put her in the ambulance, Clare witnessed the little girl trying to take off her oxygen mask – another positive sign.
“She was coming out of it,” said Clare.
Clare saved the little girl’s life.
“She responded professionally,” said fellow lifeguard Christian Sayonkon, who was also lifeguarding that day. “It was a 10 out of 10. She got to her real quickly, poked her to see if she was playing, then she got her out of the water really fast. She patted her on the back to see if she swallowed any water. She did everything she was supposed to.”
Sayonkon is a first-year lifeguard from Northeast Philadelphia who’s been working with Clare at Cione Rec. Same goes for Nexida Sanchez, from Port Richmond.
“She did what she had to do,” said Sanchez, who gained valuable experience that day. “I’m glad I was able to get used to that atmosphere so I know how to handle it in the future.”
But Clare was cool as a cucumber.
“I definitely was in shock; I was shaking,” said Carpenter. “But [Clare] really had a firm grasp on the situation. She knew exactly what to do, how to work on the girl to wake her back up.”
Clare got her start lifeguarding back in Michigan. She was no stranger to water, having swam competitively as early as age six. She stuck with it through early adulthood, and swam for both her high school and college teams.
She didn’t move to Philadelphia until about nine years ago. She lives at the corner of York and Almond, and usually works at Cohocksink Recreation Center in Port Richmond. But Cohox, like a lot of pools this year, couldn’t open due to a shortage of lifeguards. Clare sees lifeguarding as an excellent way to make side cash, especially for high school and college-aged students.
“There are pools you can work at part-time to supplement your going-out money,” said Clare. “It’s just a good way to earn money and then you can keep it as a side job like I’ve done for 25-plus years.”
Clare also works as a swim instructor, which, for her, is rewarding in and of itself.
“For these summer lifeguards, it’s so rewarding when you see that kid actually swim and pass that swim test. You think to yourself, ‘I did that, I taught that kid that.’ ”
Last year when all the city’s pools were closed, Clare said she “didn’t know what to do with” herself.
“All I was doing was cleaning and watching a lot of TV and eating,” she said. “And that was not good. I like to stay involved with the kids.”
Despite Cohocksink’s pool closure for the summer, Cione and several other River Wards pools are open. In addition to Cione, pools at Fishtown Recreation Center, Samuel Recreation Center, Bridesburg Recreation Center, Northern Liberties Recreation Center and Heitzman Recreation Center are open.
For now, Clare is simply happy to be back working her summer job again.
“It’s a switch from the older [high school] kids to the younger kids,” she said. “It just kind of keeps you young, I think.”
To learn more about becoming a Philadelphia lifeguard, visit phila.gov/departments/philadelphia-parks-recreation.