Mother recalls son's fatal 21st birthday celebration
By ANNE-MARIE MATTINGLY
American college students do not take the danger of alcohol abuse seriously enough and repeatedly put themselves at serious risk, said Cindy McCue Tuesday. McCue's son Bradley died on Nov. 5, 1998, after drinking 24 shots to celebrate his 21st birthday. After his death, she and other family members founded an organization called "Be Responsible About Drinking," also known as BRAD, which seeks to educate parents and students about the dangers of excessive drinking.
"Alcohol is a drug. It's a legal drug," she said. "It demands that you make educated, responsible choices for yourself."
Alcohol causes a series of physiological effects based on the number and types of drinks ingested. Early effects range from a loss in decision-making ability to exaggerated emotions to poor coordination each time a person abuses alcohol. If a person continues drinking, he or she may suffer from alcohol poisoning, which results in a loss of consciousness and, in some cases, death. McCue emphasized that once a person loses consciousness from alcohol poisoning, that person is in serious danger and needs help.
"Passing out and sleeping it off are not the same thing," she said. "Passing out means your body is shutting down. Sleeping it off means you've had something to drink, you're tired and you fall asleep."
When Bradley passed out, his friends did not recognize the serious nature of his condition and did not seek medical help, explained McCue.
"They didn't understand that even though he had passed out, the alcohol still in his stomach was continuing to increase his blood alcohol," she said. After checking on him for an hour, they put him to bed. He died two hours later from alcohol poisoning.
Instead of being left alone, people who appear to fall asleep after consuming large amounts of alcohol should be awakened repeatedly, said McCue. If the person cannot be awakened, one should seek emergency help immediately. Other warning signs of alcohol poisoning include cold, clammy or blue skin or a breathing rate of less than12 breaths per minute. A heart rate or 50 or fewer beats per minute, down from the normal range of 70 to 80, also indicates that the body is shutting down, McCue explained.
There is also a danger of asphyxiation while intoxicated because muscular reflexes responsible for vomiting are depressed by alcohol, resulting in incomplete ejection of stomach contents. This may cause liquid or food to enter the lungs.
"Lay them on their side and prop them up so that if they do vomit, the gravity can help," said McCue. Still, she cautioned against the popular notion that if a someone has had to much to drink, a friend should cause that person to throw up by reaching down the person's throat.
"If the gag reflex isn't working on its own, you don't want to increase their chance of choking," she explained.
The effects of drinking are not limited solely to physiological consequences, and alcohol abuse can result in serious harm even if a person does not consume enough to cause alcohol poisoning.
People under the influence of alcohol are at greater risk for serious injury, said McCue, who noted that one third of all fatal accidents involve alcohol use.
In addition, instances of sexual assault occur much more frequently when one or both people involved have been drinking, said McCue.
Seventy-seven percent of all reported campus rapes involve alcohol, and one in 12 college males admit that they have participated in activity that fits the definition of rape after drinking.
"Alcohol is the date rape drug," she said, noting that drinking is involved in many more unwanted sexual encounters than GHB or rohypnol. In addition, the use of other drugs, even over-the-counter medications, will increase the impact of each drink.
McCue explained that key differences in the physiology of men and women, such as women's smaller body size, greater amount of body fat, higher estrogen levels and lower levels of the molecules that break down alcohol means that women ultimately are more affected than men who have consumed similar amounts of alcohol. This is one major factor in the reported sexual assaults.
"A woman's going to get drunk faster and sober up slower," she McCue.
Legal consequences also exist for those who choose to drink underage, she explained.
"All 50 states make their own laws. … One thing they have in common is that you must be 21 to purchase, to possess, or to consume alcohol," she said. McCue said she supports the drinking age because she does not consider people younger than 21 to have the necessary mental, emotional or physical capacities to responsibly handle all situations involving drinking.
But despite the law, 80 percent of young people have experimented with alcohol before reaching college, and 50 percent had consumed alcoholic beverages within 30 days of being surveyed.
One third said they engaged in binge drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks in one sitting for men and four or more for women.
Those four or five drinks can be 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or a one to 1.5 ounce shot, depending on the alcohol content of the liquor.
Each drink adds 0.02 to 0.025 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. A blood alcohol level of 0.1 is considered legally intoxicated in most states, and a person is at risk for death with a blood alcohol level of 0.35 or greater. Bradley's blood alcohol at the time of his death was 0.44.
"They are drinking without understanding what it does to them," said McCue of the younger drinkers.
One other common misconception is that one can only get alcohol poisoning from drinking hard liquor.
Cases of the disease caused by other, less potent alcoholic beverages are less common because the alcohol cannot be consumed as quickly, but they are still possible, explained McCue.
"You can get alcohol poisoning from beer or wine. It just takes a larger quantity," she said, noting that with larger quantities the body is more likely to expel the beverage sooner.
McCue also noted that until recently, educational institutions have failed to recognize that alcohol abuse is a major problem among college students.
"Many universities are realizing they need to be more realistic about education … instead of just saying, `It doesn't happen here,'" she said. "Being a school full of good students doesn't mean you don't have problems."
She concluded by challenging the audience to make responsible choices.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can cause change," she said, quoting American anthropologist Margaret Mead. "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
All News Stories for Wednesday, October 4, 2000