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A Promise to Payton: What Drives One Dad to Raise Awareness About Heatstroke

April 30, 2013

My name is Reggie McKinnon. I live in Cape Coral, Florida. Three years ago, on March 8, 2010, my wife Julia and I experienced the most devastating event that can happen to a parent: the loss of our baby girl, Payton Lyn. It was a day that changed our family forever.

I met my wife Julia when we were sophomores in high school. I played varsity sports and Julia was a cheerleader. It may sound corny, but it was one of those cases of love at first sight. We started dating in 1988 and have been together since.

Prior to that tragic day in 2010, we had three wonderful girls, which to me is a miracle in itself. My wife and I tried for over seven years to conceive a child. We went through all the testing and procedures, including In vitro fertilization, to no avail. It seemed as if we were destined to remain childless.

When we finally resolved ourselves to that fact, my wife became pregnant. I can’t tell you how elated we were. We welcomed our first, Madison Elizabeth, in 2005.

We prayed for another child and God blessed us with our second daughter, Haley Marie, in 2006.

My wife and I had originally planned to have another child. However, given our situation, we felt that miracles just don’t happen a third time. Thank God we were wrong, and our beautiful little Payton Lyn arrived in 2008.

Julia and I have been very blessed with healthy children. The only health concern they’ve ever had is that they’ve inherited their mother’s propensity for ear infections.

Fortunately for us, these ear problems can be brought under control with a minor surgery in which drainage tubes are placed in the ears. Each of our girls successfully underwent the procedure, with Payton, who was 17 months at the time, being the last.

It was after one of her checkups that our lives were horrendously changed forever.

Payton’s appointment was March 8, 2010. Because Julia is a teacher and I am a supervisor at a telecommunications company, it is easier for me to get away from work for appointments. Therefore, I was the one who would take her for her checkup. 

The girls attend the daycare just up the street from my office. I usually get to work early, so Julia dropped off the girls at daycare that day. I picked up Payton at 8 o’clock and we drove to her appointment. I was so proud of how well she behaved for the doctor. After she was finished, I hurried back to work to complete my day. 

The weather that day was so beautiful. March had been so cold, and this was the first warm day of the year. The temperature was in the mid-70s. I remember walking to lunch with one of my co-workers.

I was so relieved that Payton’s surgery had healed perfectly, and so I had a nice lunch with my co-worker going on and on about the family and our most recent outing to a Boston Red Sox spring training game.

I had a really busy afternoon and was so grateful when it was time to leave. I was really fortunate because the girls were just down the street and so I didn’t have to rush.

I was walking to the car and spoke with a few friends on the way out.  I then opened the back door of my SUV to put down my laptop.

That’s the exact moment I’ll never forget.

To my horror, I realized Payton was still in her car seat. It was the last thing I remember.

I heard someone screaming. Then I realized the screaming was coming from me. The rest is just a total blur.

Before this accident, every time I would read of a child dying in a parked car of heatstroke, I would ask, “how could they forget their child?” I would never do that.  That only happens to people who are uneducated, drunk, drug addicts – not me.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this can never happen to you.  Unfortunately, I was.         

Experts will tell you this can happen to anybody. They say our busy lifestyles create enough stress to trigger mental “lapses.”  It appears that minor changes in daily routines contribute to these mental lapses and that “the stressed-out brain” can bury a thought – something as trite as a coffee cup or crucial as a baby – and go on autopilot.

And while all that might be true, I can tell you personally, when you’ve been through it, it doesn’t really help.

I made a promise to my sweet Payton that I would do everything I could to prevent this horror from ever happening to another innocent child. That’s why I’m sharing my story to try to educate families and friends about the risks of heatstroke.

Although the temperature that day in March was mild, I had no idea that within 10 minutes the temperature within a vehicle can rise 20 degrees. That kind of rapid rise in temperature can be deadly for a small child.

Out of all of this tragedy, a blessing occurred for our family on January 19, 2011. Our daughter, Olivia Grace Laila, was born. She has been a true gift – and no ear surgery so far. 

Because of all I’ve learned and experienced, I feel very confident that she’ll always be safe from heatstroke – and that feeling of knowing I’m equipped to do everything in my power to keep my baby safe makes me feel better. It’s a good feeling. And it’s a feeling every parent deserves.