Home » Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon » Alcohol poisoning and a trip to the ICU: Six tips for parents to discuss with teens to keep them safer

Alcohol poisoning and a trip to the ICU: Six tips for parents to discuss with teens to keep them safer

Almost five years I wrote about Hannah Lottritz, a 21-year-old college student from the US who had written a piece titled ‘Drinking Responsibly’ which featured this photograph of her on life-support. When it was first published in 2016, Hannah’s article went viral, with the confronting image attracting a great deal of attention. The reason behind her controversial decision to share this disturbing image was clearly explained in her opening paragraph which read as follows:

“I’m writing this because I didn’t realize the importance of drinking responsibly until I was waking up from a coma, and I don’t want anyone to go through what my family and I went through. I ask that you share this with your friends, family or anyone who may benefit from reading this. If I can help just one person by sharing my experience, then I will be absolutely ecstatic.”

No-one intends to end up in an emergency department when they go out to have a good time with their friends on a Saturday night. Although it sounds ‘pat’, in so many cases, the difference between having a ‘good time’ and finding yourself on life-support in hospital can be just one drink …

Hannah’s story may sound extreme to some but it is not unusual. She had gone to a music festival and made the mistake of trying to play ‘catch-up’ with her friends in regard to alcohol. She then drifted away from the people she knew and ended up with another group, who she then promised she could “outdrink”. This included skolling whiskey straight from the bottle. From then on she has no memory of what happened and had to rely on friends to fill in the gaps. Shortly after skolling the whiskey, she collapsed and stopped breathing. She was taken to the event’s medical tent, intubated and flown to hospital. Her parents were contacted by police and told that she was in a critical condition, suffering from acute respiratory failure and acute alcohol intoxication.  Her BAC was 0.41 when she entered the ER and she was completely unresponsive.

Young people getting so drunk that they need assistance to breathe is not a new phenomenon. In my original piece I discussed an email I had received from a young woman named Georgia who found herself in such a situation. After drinking way too much, she lost consciousness and thankfully due to a couple of her quick-thinking friends, an ambulance was called and she was rushed to hospital. What she wrote right at the end of the message really had an impact on me.

“I’ll never forgive myself for my stupid decisions that night. But it is my friends and, most importantly, my Mum and Dad that I feel really bad about. I don’t have any memories about the really bad stuff. I blacked out well before I was taken to hospital but it was my friends who had to try to look after me at the party who I put into such a terrible position who had to deal with the situation. My poor parents had to sit my hospital bed for almost 24 hours and be told that I may not make it through the night. I just feel so selfish …”

As I wrote to Georgia at the time, it’s important that she forgives herself for her error of judgment. She made a mistake, she needs to apologise to those people she feels she needs to say sorry to and then brush herself off and get on with life. But that can be difficult …

Unfortunately, I have recently started to receive an increasing number of photographs from young people that show them on life-support, in ambulances and in hospital emergency departments. I’ve been getting photos from teens for years via my Instagram but I’d never got even one photo like this until very recently. The accompanying messages usually say something along the lines of “you can use this photo in your talks because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else” or “I never thought this would happen to me”. I now use one of these images in my presentations (after getting permission from the young woman’s parents who I talked with over Zoom) and it’s incredibly powerful …

What is so interesting is how many students now approach me after my talk to tell me that they have also been hospitalized after drinking too much … Now, I certainly don’t encourage anyone to share that kind of information with me but for some of these young people it almost seems a little bit cathartic. I’ve never had anyone boast or make light of their experience but they certainly appear to want to talk through at least some of what happened. Nevertheless, I still think it takes a fairly gutsy teen to do this and once they’ve finished I always make sure I ask them two questions.

Firstly, I ask them if they’re okay, both at that moment and in general. They went through a trauma and I want to make sure that discussing it with me hasn’t triggered anything. Then secondly, I ask them what they remember most about the experience. What is absolutely fascinating is that nearly all of them say exactly the same thing. They have very little memory of their drinking and never remember anything about being looked after or the ambulance (as Georgia alluded to in her email). What they all have very clear memories of, however, is waking up in the hospital bed, a drip in their arm, a tube down their throat and their parents next to them, often in tears.

No-one wants their child to go through this experience. So when it comes to alcohol poisoning and the risk of ending up in hospital, what should a parent be saying to their teen in an effort to keep them protected or at the very least, aware of the dangers? Here are some key points that could be raised:

  • if you’re going to drink, make sure you eat something beforehand. Young people need to eat a ‘fistful of food’ before they go out – that’s about the size of their empty stomach. That’s enough to keep you protected to some degree, slowing down absorption but not interfering with the actual alcohol experience. Something ‘carbohydrate-heavy’ like a small bowl of pasta or rice, even a sandwich or burger is best. Model this behaviour yourself as well – they learn by watching you
  • ensure that water is a part of every alcohol experience your teen has – starting at the beginning of the night and continuing throughout. Make sure the first drink they drink is a glass of water (it prepares them for the dehydrating effect of alcohol and also fills them up a little so they are less likely to gulp that first bottle or can down as fast) and try to get them to get into the habit of having another glass between each alcoholic drink. We usually tell young people this is mainly about rehydrating but realistically having that glass of water in between drinks can also help slow their drinking down just a little. Once again, modelling this behaviour yourself is so important …
  • remember that alcohol is like any other drug, it can affect you differently every time you drink it. You could have exactly the same amount of alcohol on two different occasions and have completely different experiences. Many people refuse to believe this and when something does go amiss they’re convinced that it couldn’t be the alcohol that caused the problem. Make sure your teen gets this message early – just because they had a ‘good time’ when they had a couple of shots last week does not mean it’ll necessarily be the same this week!
  • avoid drinking games and shots. Unfortunately, for some young (and even not so young) people this is just part of their alcohol experience and there’s little we’re going to be able to do to change that. That said, make your views clear on this kind of drinking behaviour – we know that your opinion can actually make a difference
  • when it comes to other people drinking, encourage them to intervene when necessary. People just don’t suddenly become drunk and lose consciousness – there will be warning signs. If you see a friend who you think is getting into trouble, step in and say something. Try to get them away from the alcohol by suggesting you go for a walk together, send them a text to distract them or get others to help you – don’t let it get to the stage of having to call an ambulance if you can possibly help it
  • most importantly, make sure they know they have your total support should something ever go wrong and they need to call for help. Many young people don’t call 000 because they’re frightened their parents may find out – that’s so sad and must be devastating for parents to hear. Nobody ever wants their child to be put into a situation where they need to call an ambulance but every parent wants to know that if they were, they’d do it without hesitation!

As I say in my talks with students, no-one ever gets taken to hospital after having one drink. It’s unlikely that anyone will end up on life-support after having a couple of drinks across a night. People end up in hospital when they drink too much, too fast. So if you’re with someone that you even remotely care about and they’re drinking too much, too fast – you just need to say two simple words – “Slow down!”

Having a conversation about alcohol and all the things that can go wrong is never going to be easy. Acknowledging that your teen may be drinking, without necessarily condoning the behaviour, can be extremely difficult but it is necessary. That one conversation could prevent the one person you love most in the world from ending up being transported to hospital and that’s worth all the discomfort in the world …

Published: April 2022

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