Only the imagination can sense the suffering of children trapped in vehicles

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy prefers to deal in facts, so he couldn’t answer my two questions: How long did it take for Jason Rimer to die, and how much did the disabled 4-year-old suffer?

His office hasn’t been able to estimate the time it took Jason to die, Murphy said. And because of the criminal charges filed against the parents, he cannot discuss specifics of whether Jason suffered.

Even at a trial, Murphy said, the level of suffering probably will not be detailed because testimony from the coroner’s office usually addresses cause and manner of death, avoiding gruesome details.

“Prosecutors stay away from a lot of descriptive language, so they don’t inflame the jury,” he said.

So I still don’t know how long it took for Jason to die when he was trapped overnight in the family’s SUV for 17 hours before a brother found him.

Jason’s parents, Stan and Colleen Rimer, were indicted Tuesday on one count of murder and six counts of child abuse and neglect.

On June 8, when the family came home from church and left Jason in the car overnight, the high temperature was 90 degrees. But it became much hotter inside the locked vehicle, an estimated 130 degrees.

Murphy was able to provide me some general information about death from hyperthermia, or heat stress, the official cause of Jason’s death, but couldn’t address the specifics of his death.

The medical examiner who handled Jason’s case, Dr. Alane Olson, dictated a written description for me about what happens with hyperthermia.

She explained that the body temperature increases so fast, it outpaces the body’s ability to lose heat. The most vulnerable are the elderly and the very young. Those suffering from heatstroke typically have a temperature of 105 to 106 degrees or higher, hot, dry skin, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, rapid breathing and altered perceptions.

Sweating might initially be present, though hot, flush, dry skin is more common. The skin might also appear blanched and relatively cool.

The symptoms might come on suddenly or might be preceded by additional symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, muscle cramps, shortness of breath and a feeling of warmth.

People experiencing it have said they lost the ability to concentrate and felt a vague feeling of impending physical deterioration. They might stop sweating. Typically, the face feels dry and hot.

The slightest movement of the body might produce an increase in heart rate and a premonition of a fainting spell. Unusual sensations might develop in the hands, feet and ankles.

Once the blood temperature rises above a certain level, there is generalized relaxation and dilation of the blood vessels, which results in an effective decrease in blood volume and a lowering of blood pressure.

That in turn increases the amount of blood flowing back to the heart, and often the left side of the heart cannot keep pace with the right. That can lead to circulatory collapse, unconsciousness and death, according to Olson’s written explanation.

The description was detailed enough that I could imagine what Jason might have gone through. Even though the coroner’s office can’t pinpoint the exact time of death, it certainly wouldn’t be a quick one.

For years, I’ve wondered how much pain and suffering children left in cars go through before dying.

Doubtlessly, the parents of the dead children wonder, too.

The most recent U.S. statistics from Jan Null at San Francisco State University: This year, 20 children have died of hyperthermia after being left in cars. In 2007, there were 35.

It’s not just sweltering summer days that can kill a child. Even an outdoor temperature of 70 degrees can kill a child inside a car.

The average age of the dead children is 2. Jason was 4, but because of his disability, myotonic dystrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, he acted more like a 2-year-old and wasn’t able to get out of the locked car or even think to honk the horn for help.

The coroner sees evidence all the time of horrific cruelty. But Murphy copes.

“In my house, nobody says goodbye without saying ‘I love you,’ ” he said.

Wonder how many “I love yous” Jason Rimer received in his short lifetime.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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