'Steep, deep, sticky': One slide, several injured kids

When Jennifer Mnookin and her husband Joshua Dienstag took their two young children to Greenleaf Park on Sunday, June 27, they were hoping for a relaxing diversion. They'd returned home the previous day from a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the movers had just delivered all of their belongings.

But instead of a pleasurable afternoon dodging the chaos of a cluttered home, they ended up in the emergency room. And it turns out more than one local parent has had the same experience.

The family's trouble started when their 18-month-old son, Isaac, envied his nearly five-year-old sister's trip down the park's steepest slide.

About 10 feet high, the slide slopes at more than a 45-degree angle, so Mnookin, a UVA law professor, decided to take Isaac down on her lap. Their first trip went off without a hitch.

"He loved it," she says.

The second time down, however, his leg caught under his mother and twisted.

"He just started screaming," recalls Mnookin. When Isaac's crying continued and he would not put weight on the limb, his parents decided to have him checked.

After four hours in Martha Jefferson's emergency room, the radiologist delivered the bad news: Isaac's tibia– the larger of the two lower leg bones– was fractured, and he'd need a full-leg cast for four weeks– nightmarish news for parents of an active, bath-needing toddler.

"I feel horrible," says Mnookin, though she says the doctor assured her it was not an uncommon accident.

Proof of that came just two days later while Mnookin was shopping at Feast!, the gourmet food store in the Main Street Market.

There, she says, she was approached by Karen Barrington (a pseudonym) who inquired about Isaac's leg. Barrington, who asked that her family's names not be used, had more than a passing interest.

Back in November, while Barrington and her husband were at Greenleaf with their then-22-month old son, Matthew, the same thing happened: Going down the steep slide on his father's lap, the baby's leg caught and twisted, breaking his fibula, the smaller lower leg bone.

"We felt terrible," says Barrington. "That day we were both just pretty nauseated."

Though her husband felt "really guilty," Barrington says the injury seemed unavoidable. "I didn't blame him," she says, "because I would have done the same thing."

And yet another parent confirms the slide's risk. Beth Cottone says when her nearly two-year-old daughter, Cecilia, was 18 months old, she took her down the Greenleaf slide: Cecilia's leg caught and twisted, though it did not break.

"That slide," she says, "is steep, deep, and sticky."

Barrington blames the slide's high sides as well as its texture for the incident.

"There's something about the rubber material that the slide is made of," she explains, "that sticks on sneakers."

Is this rash of playground leg injuries an anomaly? Probably not.

The type of break suffered by both Isaac and Matthew has a special name, "toddler's fracture," says Dr. Mark Abel, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at UVA, because of how frequently– and easily– the lower leg bones of children between 18 months and three years can break. Simply stepping down wrong can result in such a fracture, but "having a slide as part of the mechanism of injury is also common," says Abel. Fortunately, he adds, this type of fracture heals "without consequence" in about a month.

As for the safety of the Greenleaf slide, Abel says he believes it is probably "too steep for a parent and a toddler." And he wonders about the safety of older children going down on their own.

But Mike Svetz, new chief of Charlottesville's parks and recreation department, says that Greenleaf Park's playground– like all city playgrounds– meets guidelines suggested by the National Playground Safety Institute. Further, says Svetz, the city employs three certified playground inspectors.

The steep slide, he says, along with much of the equipment at Greenleaf playground, is intended for children six and up.

"Parents are asked to take an active role in supervision of children," says Svetz.

But, after hearing of these three incidents from a Hook reporter, the city will no longer rely solely on parents to exercise good judgment.

"We have ordered 'recommended usage' signage for playground equipment from the manufacturer," says Svetz, "and will be placing it on playgrounds when it arrives where it is appropriate and necessary."

Mnookin, for one, is glad to get her story out but wants to know exactly what those signs will say. She has a particular interest.

"I teach torts," she laughs, a course on civil suits that includes "the possible use of warnings to avoid liability."

For the record, Mnookin says, she has no plans to sue.

At least three toddlers have injured their legs riding this slide on a parent's lap.