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'They lose consciousness': Doctor, reporter illustrate hot car's effect on children

Posted: 7:55 PM, Jul 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-19 20:58:46-04
Shaun Gallagher and Dr. Mike Meyer in hot car

On what could be the hottest day of the year, a hot car is the last, and arguably the most unsafe place to be.

According to the National Safety Council, in 2018, a record 52 children died in hot cars. It's something one local doctor calls "100% preventable."

"Don't leave them alone," said Dr. Mike Meyer of the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. "Even if you run in for a minute."

Temperatures skyrocket in cars, and it doesn't have to be record-breaking heat.

"It's not just on super hot days," Meyer said. "It could happen in the middle of spring with a great amount of sunshine; our cars trap heat. It also traps the humidity. The more humid it is, the harder it is for the body to regulate."

To show how long it takes to become severely uncomfortable, Meyer sat in a parked car with the engine off with TODAY'S TMJ4's Shaun Gallagher. They took precautions by having a number of people standing by and plenty of water, just in case.

To simulate what happens when a child is forgotten in the car, they left it running until they decided to get in. At first, it wasn't too bad.

"The car felt fine for the first minute or so," Meyer said. "The ambient air from the air conditioning kicking on."

But it escalated quickly. A thermometer in the car went from just below 80 to roughly 90 degrees in less than 10 minutes.

"(The air) is thick," Meyer said. "It is more humid in the car right now than it is outside right now. I'm here, sweating. You and I are sweating. The temperature is going up. There's no place for that sweat to evaporate."

As the minutes tick by, beads of sweat form on Meyer's forehead, cheek and, soon, his entire body. Droplets cascade behind his glasses and down his cheeks as he describes what's going on inside the body as the temperature rises in this four-wheeled oven.

"We start to sweat," Meyer said. "Our blood vessels dilate or get larger because we're trying to put as much blood flow out in the periphery because evaporation occurs. Sweat evaporates and a cooling effect from that."

But for children, they don't have that luxury.

"Little kids do not start to sweat the same way an adult does," Meyer said. "Little kids do not regulate their body temperature like you and I. Once you get that temperature above 108, we start to see the organ function deteriorate. Unfortunately, this is where kids die. They're not able to regulate that body heat. Their organs start to shut down and neurologically, they start to have seizures. They lose consciousness."

While many parents can't believe someone could forget their child in the backseat, it happens. Perhaps a parent who doesn't usually drop off the child is forced to because of a schedule change. Because it is out of their normal schedule, they could possibly forget and just drive to work and get out if the child fell asleep. That's when a horrific situation can occur.

"We can step out of this car," Meyer said. "You have a 2- or 3-year-old trapped in the car seat, all they can do is try to scream. If there's no one there to hear them, you get trapped in these things. It is 100% preventable."

After just over 18 minutes, Meyer called it quits inside the car. His shirt is soaked through and he's in dire need of a glass of water. It shows how detrimental this could be for a child who couldn't get out of a car after 18 minutes. Even if a child is found in time, the effects could be life-altering.

"They may be neurologically devastated," Meyer said. "They may be totally dependent on care. One of the most common things, the liver fails. The kidney fails. We're talking about body temperatures above 108 degrees. That's where we see heatstroke."

"Once you get that temperature above 108, we start to see the organ function deteriorate. Unfortunately, this is where kids die. They're not able to regulate that body heat. Their organs start to shut down and neurologically, they start to have seizures. They lose consciousness." — Dr. Mike Meyer

Whether it's in a car or out in the elements, Meyer said to look for signs of heat exhaustion including headaches, delirium and lowered awareness. If this happens, find somewhere cool immediately and get lots of fluids.

"As your body temperature goes up, as an adult, if you stop sweating, that's an ominous sign," Meyer said. "No matter how much you drink, if you stop sweating, your core body temperature is up."

For kids who show signs of heat exhaustion, it's best to have them checked out by a physician to make sure they're OK.