It's 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. An ambulance stops outside the hospital emergency room and doctors immediately roll a stretcher through the doors and to a treatment room. A young girl, uncommunicative and combative, is throwing up. A team of medical professionals, well aware that her vomit may soon choke her, puts a tube down her throat to breathe for her. She is 15 years old and all alone.
Her parents will soon receive a phone call. They'll forget about her missed curfews and delayed responses to their text messages. They will simply be thankful their daughter is alive. Her parents may have dropped her off a few hours ago at a friend's house, a concert or the beach. But, they'll learn that soon after they left, she consumed a lot of alcohol quickly and passed out. They'll want to blame someone else, but be thankful that her friends — also inebriated — decided to call 911.
This is a real story. This young girl was lucky she ended up in an emergency room where she was safe, cared for and would recover. This girl and her family are also lucky that she did not attempt to drive before passing into unconsciousness and that her inebriated friends called 911 rather than driving her to a hospital.
Emergency rooms across Connecticut are regularly treating dangerously drunk young people and, in some hospitals, frequently. This is no exaggeration. Underage binge or high-risk drinking that has a high level of toxicity is a real public health problem. The effects can be lifelong if not devastating and life-threatening. Such drinking binges are also entirely preventable.
Underage drinking as well as binge drinking — defined as five or more drinks in a sitting — occurs at significant rates in Connecticut. The 2011 Connecticut School Health Survey, which questioned high school students across the state, found that in the month before the survey, 41.5 percent of high school students reported having at least one drink of alcohol, 22.3 percent reported binge drinking, 6.9 percent said they drove after drinking alcohol and 25.2 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. In Connecticut, 15.6 percent of high school students drank alcohol (other than a few sips) for the first time before age 13.
The survey reports that unhealthy behaviors often established during childhood continue into adulthood. They also can stem from a family culture of permissive alcohol use and excessive drinking by adults who are role models.
As the school year ends, the potential for this kind of excessive drinking rises with trips to summer concerts, visits to the beach, parties in the woods near homes, house and pool gatherings while parents are away or even asleep. Parents must be aware of this serious issue and develop prevention tools.
Compelling research shows that alcohol consumption can adversely affect developing adolescents' brains and have long-term health consequences. Studies also show the brain doesn't fully develop until we are about 25 years old. This means underage drinkers often cannot fully understand the risky situations they invite.
This behavior is not simply a rite of passage in contemporary society or some other family's problem. Kids are also using innovative strategies, as Yale-New Haven Hospital reports, such as soaking tampon applicators in alcohol to avoid traces on the breath. In addition to death that can result from alcohol poisoning, driving drunk or with an impaired driver, the studies show that youths who drink alcohol are more likely to experience problems in school and become involved in unwanted, unplanned and unprotected sexual activity. Families could face a litany of legal problems from intoxicated youths' actions.
Many parents may feel helpless, but they shouldn't. The Connecticut School Health Survey consistently shows that students with a supportive adult involvement are less likely to engage in risky and unhealthy behaviors. Parents must lead by example, talk to their children about alcohol and the dangers of binge drinking, discuss the potential tragic consequences of drinking and driving for either the child or friends, set clear expectations, have strict supervision and impose serious consequences for violating family rules.
We will continue to promote positive behavior through the levers of government, including schools. We will continue to provide world-class medical care to everyone in our communities. But we know that parents are the biggest influence in their children's lives. And as parents ourselves, we know no one cares more about the health, well-being and future of their child.
Jeff A. Finkelstein, MD, is chief of emergency medicine at Hartford Hospital and The Hospital of Central Connecticut. C. Steven Wolf, MD, is chairman for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center. Melody A. Currey is commissioner of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. For help and ideas, visit the state's website http://www.SETtheRulesCT.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun