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The difference between a ‘good time’ and ending up on life-support could be just one drink

About 18 months ago a story from the US got a great deal of media coverage right across the world. Hannah Lottritz, a 21-year-old from Nevada, uploaded a photograph of herself on life-support together with a blog entry titled ‘Drinking Responsibly’ in an effort to warn others about the risks associated with drinking to excess. The article and photograph went viral with both being picked up by news agencies across the world. The reason behind her decision to share this disturbing image is clearly explained in the opening paragraph of the piece …

“I am 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.”

Sadly, I meet many young people who’ve had similar experiences – most totally mortified about what happened and many completely mystified by how it happened. As I say to young people, I’ve never met someone who wanted to end up in an emergency department – every single one of them made a silly mistake, some believing they drank exactly the same amount as they’d done on other occasions and others having just one or two more than usual. It sounds ‘pat’ but it’s true – the difference between having a ‘good time’ and finding yourself on life-support in hospital could be just one drink.

Hannah’s story isn’t unusual. She’d gone to a music festival and made the mistake of trying to play ‘catch-up’ with her friends when it came 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 alcohol intoxication. As she says in her article:

“My blood alcohol concentration was .41 when I arrived at the hospital, five times over the legal limit. The doctors thought I was brain dead because I was completely unresponsive. My pupils were sluggishly reactive, I had no corneal reflex and I wasn’t responding to verbal or painful stimuli”

Unfortunately, some young people actually wear the fact that they’ve been taken to hospital like a ‘badge of honour’. For some reason they think it’s ‘cool’ to have this experience, with some actually bragging about apparently having their stomachs’ pumped. Of course, their bravado and ‘big talk’ could simply be due to embarrassment but nevertheless we need to make sure that young people are aware that there is nothing glamorous about ending up in hospital on life-support. The hospital staff often have to cut off the patient’s clothing, if they haven’t wet or messed themselves, they’ve vomited and need to be cleaned up and put into a hospital gown. They’re then intubated – this is where a small tube is inserted through the mouth or nose, then threaded through the oesophagus and into the stomach. This tube is placed on suction, decompressing the stomach which helps reduce the risk of vomiting. The person’s also put on an IV drip to help with hydration. As you can imagine this is all extremely unpleasant and certainly not glamorous. As Hannah writes in her article …“I finally woke up about 24 hours after I arrived at the hospital. I had a tube down my throat and my hands were restrained so I couldn’t pull it out. I was unable to talk with the tube down my throat, making it hard to tell my parents and the nurses that it was extremely uncomfortable. I had to pass a respiratory test to prove I could breathe on my own before they removed it. I failed the first respiratory test I took, and I had to wait several hours to take another test.” 

Last year I received an email from a young woman named Georgia who found herself in a similar situation. She’d got extremely drunk, became unconscious and thankfully due to a couple of her quick-thinking friends, an ambulance was called and she was rushed to hospital. She wanted to share her story, telling me that I could use it in my school talks, but it was what she wrote right at the end of the message that really had an impact on me.

“I drank far too much and I will 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 back to Georgia, it’s important that she forgives herself for her error of judgment. She made a mistake, she needs to apologize to those people she feels she needs to say sorry to and then brush herself off and get on with life. Beating yourself up for mistakes like this gets you nowhere. Waking up in a hospital room with tubes down your throat and your parents standing over the top of you in tears must be devastating though. it’s a tough thing to recover from.

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 just a couple of 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 …
  • it can’t sober you up but making sure that water is a part of every alcohol experience is extremely important. Make sure the first drink is a glass of water (preparing them for the dehydrating effect of alcohol and quenching their thirst so they’re less likely to gulp that first bottle or can down as fast) and try to ensure they have another between each alcoholic drink
  • remember, alcohol is like any other drug, it can affect you differently every time you drink it. Many find this hard to believe and when something does go amiss they’re convinced it couldn’t be alcohol that caused the problem. Ensure your teen gets this message early – just because they had a ‘good time’ when they had a couple of shots last week doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily be the same this week
  • avoid drinking games and shots. Unfortunately, for some 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 – your opinion can actually make a difference
  • when it comes to others drinking, encourage them to intervene when necessary. People just don’t suddenly become drunk and lose consciousness – there’ll be warning signs. This is a gradual process for most people. If you see a friend who’s getting into trouble, step in and say something. It’s not even about telling them not to drink, saying something as simple as “slow down” could make all the difference. 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

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’s 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: February 2018

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