It’s any family’s worst nightmare: A health emergency leaves a parent unconscious while driving, trapping the adult and a child in a moving car.
Watching his mom go limp behind the wheel, Bustin’s 13-year-old son, Nathan, had to think fast. It likely helped prevent serious injuries or even save both their lives.
“He really just was my hero because he didn't panic. He just thought, I’ve got to help my mom, save my mom,” Bustin, who lives in Clay, New York, told TODAY.
“It could have gone south pretty fast but luckily I was able to take control,” Nathan said.
Bustin had driven Nathan to ice hockey practice on Jan. 3 and was waiting for him in the car when hunger struck. It was dinner time and she hadn’t had a meal since lunch, so she looked around for something to eat, found a jar of peanuts and ate three handfuls.
“I'm not a big peanut eater,” she said. “I almost never do. Just that day they were in the car and I happened to be hungry and I just didn't think anything of it because I didn't ever have a peanut allergy.”
As Bustin was driving her son home after the practice, her hands and feet started to tingle, and she felt her cheeks turning red as if they were on fire, she recalled. But she didn’t experience any swelling of her tongue or lips.
When Nathan saw his mom roll down the window to get some air, he knew something was wrong.
“Then her eyes rolled up and her head went back to the headrest,” he said. “As soon as she went unconscious, her hands just dropped and totally relaxed.”
Nathan grabbed the steering wheel with his left hand and dialed 911 with his right, he said. They were going fairly slow at first, but then his mom’s body stiffened up with her foot still on the gas pedal, so the car accelerated to about 40 miles per hour, he recalled. He focused on keeping the vehicle on the road while maneuvering through traffic.
The car finally stopped when they hit a slow-moving truck — a safer choice than hitting a metal pole that was also in their trajectory, Bustin said after finding out the details afterwards. The crash smashed up the front of their car and the air bags deployed. Nathan jumped out and dragged his still-unconscious mom out of the cabin, fearing the smoke from the air bags meant the car was on fire.
The entire incident was over in less than a minute. Bustin remembers sitting in the grass, looking up, when she regained consciousness. Mom and son were both OK, with Nathan suffering some scratches and Bustin bruised and achy.
She was taken to a hospital where a battery of medical tests and scans revealed nothing wrong with her heart, she said. She suffered no broken bones and didn’t have a concussion. She hadn’t suffered a stroke.
Bustin said doctors determined the official cause of her passing out was an allergic reaction to peanuts — something Bustin didn’t even know she had to worry about.
Most food allergies start in childhood, but they can also develop in adults — including those over age 40 — even if they have previously eaten the food without problems, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. The most common food allergies for adults are shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts and fish.
"We are so accustomed to hearing about allergies in young children and to think you could be an adult and develop allergies is a little bit startling," said NBC medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar. "They can come out of nowhere."
One study found 25% of Americans with a food allergy developed it for the first time as adults.
Another found that number was closer to almost half of adults with a food allergy, suggesting that “adult-onset allergy is common in the United States among adults of all ages, to a wide variety of allergens.” It may be due to hormonal or immune system changes as people age, but the exact reasons are unknown.
Bustin received an EpiPen prescription, and now carries that device plus Benadryl and the corticosteroid prednisone with her at all times, so “if it ever happens again, I'm all set,” she said. She’s seeing an allergist and is avoiding peanuts or any foods that contain them.
Bustin was grateful there wasn't more traffic that day and that Nathan was so quick thinking.
“He totally did save both of our lives,” she said. “I feel like God was looking down on us and helping Nate steer.”
The 8th grader received a Cicero Police Department Life Saving Award.
“He did awesome,” said Chief Steve Rotunno of the Cicero, New York, police. “This area of the highway can be challenging to maneuver though. This could have definitely had a different outcome.”
If you’re in a car with a driver who loses consciousness, experts advise resisting the urge to shut off the engine because that means losing power steering and power brakes.
Instead, try to shift the transmission into neutral and coast to a stop on the shoulder of the road — if there’s time and space to do that. For a quicker stop, use the hand brake or try to reach the brake pedal with your foot.