The family of Michael Stuyvesant knows he beat the odds on a hot June day six years ago when he survived being accidentally left in the mini-van parked outside their Garland home.
Michael, 3 years old at the time, experienced brain swelling, seizures and other trauma caused when his body overheated. He was hospitalized for 10 days – three of them in intensive care – and then spent almost a month in a rehabilitation facility. Michael had to relearn skills such as walking, eating and playing.
His father says Michael still deals with short-term memory loss. But the Stuyvesants count themselves lucky that he didn’t die in the accident. On average, 39 children in the United States suffer fatal injuries every year from what’s known as pediatric vehicular heatstroke, a tragic and preventable danger. Four children have died so far in 2021 as of mid-June.
Eric Stuyvesant wishes his vehicle had been equipped with a device to remind him that Michael was asleep in the car seat that day in 2015. Some type of alarm “would have saved a lot of anguish, tears and heartache,” he said.
Legislation introduced last month in the U.S. Congress would require automakers to install technology that detects a backseat occupant, and then alerts the driver. The Hot Cars Act would make the technology a standard safety feature in every new passenger vehicle. The legislation calls for sensors and warning systems in an effort to protect unattended children and pets.
Here’s an example, a rear-seat reminder: If someone opens and closes a car’s back door within 10 minutes of starting the ignition, an alert will activate later whenever the vehicle shuts off. The alert chimes and a message on the instrument panel tell the driver to check for backseat riders. Supporters of the Hot Cars Act draw comparisons to other technology mandated over the years for auto safety, such as seatbelt reminders and levers for emergency release in trunks.
Chad Hamner, M.D., pediatric surgeon and trauma medical director at Cook Children’s, believes in the potential benefit of such devices whenever parents and caregivers unintentionally leave their little passengers behind.
“It’s not a sign that you’re an unintelligent person or forgetful. It just happens,” Dr. Hamner said. “We get in a routine or we’re thinking about other things. It’s natural human behavior.”
When it comes to excessive heat, infants and young children are particularly at risk. Their bodies heat up five times faster than an adult in the same environment as a result of a larger surface area relative to body mass for heat exchange with their surroundings. Infants are at exceptional risk as they also have an immature temperature regulatory system.
What happens during heatstroke? Dr. Hamner said profuse sweating leads to loss of water and electrolytes, which can rapidly produce dehydration. A severely dehydrated child can’t maintain adequate blood pressure to support the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to their vital organs. According to Dr. Hamner, eventually heat stroke results in cardiovascular collapse and damage to muscles, the kidneys, the intestines and the brain. In the emergency department, the staff works fast to bring down the body temperature and replace lost fluids and lost electrolytes.
Symptoms of hyperthermia include rapid pulse, shallow breathing, flushed skin, high fever, vomiting, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness. Organs start shutting down when the body core temperature reaches 104 degrees, said Sharon Evans, trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s.
“Usually by the time the child is found (in a hot car), they‘re dead. They rarely even make it to the hospital,” she said.
Texas leads the nation in the most fatalities, with 132 since 1998, including five last year. Evans said public awareness campaigns in the state have made a difference. But she also favors the implementation of more technology, such as devices that detect motion or breathing in the back seat. She supports the Hot Cars Act.
Experts want caregivers and bystanders to know:
State law in Texas gives liability protection to anyone who forcibly enters a locked vehicle (by breaking a window, for instance) to reach a vulnerable person inside who faces imminent harm. State law also protects the confidentiality of anyone who calls to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
Statistics kept by the advocacy groups KidsandCars.org show July as the deadliest month for pediatric heatstroke. Even in milder weather, the temperatures inside a vehicle can quickly climb to a hazardous level. Studies found that in just 10 minutes a car’s internal temperature rises 19 degrees. To put it another way … 80 degrees outside, but a sweltering 99 degrees for anyone inside the vehicle.
KidsandCars.org keeps track of pediatric vehicular heatstroke in three main categories: A caregiver forgets the child (55% of cases), the child gets into the car on his or her own (26%), and someone leaves the child in the car deliberately (14%). A common thread in many instances is a deviation in the family’s routine on the day of the accident.
That’s what happened to the Stuyvesants on June 10, 2015. Eric Stuyvesant normally dropped off Michael at daycare and then drove his wife Michelle to work. But this particular day, to get Michelle to work earlier, he drove her to the office first with the intention of stopping off at daycare on the way back. But the phone rang, autopilot kicked in, and he forgot about Michael.
“I drove down to my regular exit, drove home, finished my phone call, went in the house and cooked my breakfast,” Stuyvesant said. “About 45 minutes later I remembered we hadn’t been to the babysitter.” He found his son “barely hanging on.”
He rushed Michael into a cold shower, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and put an ice pack on his carotid artery while waiting on paramedics to arrive. At the hospital, doctors put the boy into a coma to reduce swelling in his brain. Recovery wasn’t easy.
Stuyvesant and others emphasize that heatstroke accidents can happen to anyone. Because of what his family went through, Stuyvesant now makes the case for all new cars to come equipped with the features that the Hot Cars Act endorses.
“If we have technology in our vehicles that remind us that our cell phone is plugged in, our headlights are on, our turn signal has been blinking for awhile, we ought to have technology that remind us we forgot where we are and we need to turn around and go to the babysitter.”