Life of the Party
The door of the bus opens, belching a stale blast of vomit-scented air into the night. Inside, empty plastic bottles that once held rum and coke, whiskey and coke, gin and tonic, you name it, are scattered everywhere: on the floor, on the plush chairs, in the pockets of the seat backs. Crushed beer cans are stashed beneath the leg rests and between the cushions. Toward the back of the bus sits the source of the malodor: a barefoot and disheveled bleached-blond sophomore from a University of Colorado sorority. Fresh puke stains dot the front of her white dress, and her hair is slick with sweat from a series of sudden, fantastic explosions. Another sorority girl, this one in blue, makes her way toward her friend from the bathroom of the bus, where she's been cleaning up the mess.
"How's she doing?" she asks two young men tending to her fallen sister.
They don't answer. Instead, they greet a third young man, dressed like them in a red polo shirt, black cargo pants and boots, as he boards the bus. Dave Speidel is one of the original members and now the chief operating officer of Student Emergency Medical Services, an almost-two-year-old CU student group that arranges for trained Emergency Medical Technicians to monitor college functions -- primarily parties -- and make sure that anyone who drinks to the point of danger can get help. Tonight's assignment is a sorority formal in downtown Denver; the sisters have chartered three buses to make the trip to Denver and back, and they've invited SEMS along for the ride. Two undergraduates, Mat Feldman and Eric Altenau, have accompanied the group from Boulder; Speidel, who graduated from CU in 2004 and now lives downtown, catches up with the party in Denver.
University of Colorado drinking
After Speidel is briefed on the sophomore's case history and vital signs, the three EMTs decide to take her inside and get her some water, put some food in her stomach. The girl, who's recovering from a case of strep, hasn't eaten all day and hasn't had a drink for two weeks -- tonight's short-lived binge aside. They guide the girl past the annoyed bus driver, then past the two dozen or so party-goers smoking outside in the cool, evening air: foppy-banged, J.Crew-clad white boys and the Anthropologie girls who love them, their cleavages thrust toward the heavens.
"That's the problem with partying in Denver," one of the guys says in disgust. "Somebody always pukes."
Inside, past more sorority sisters and their dates queuing up in front of the ballroom, the girl takes a mean spill off her high heels on the linoleum floor. After puking some more -- this time in a toilet in the women's bathroom -- she decides she's feeling better and moves to a couch in the hallway. Feldman and Altenau continue to check her vital signs -- pulse, blood pressure, respiration -- while Speidel fills out the requisite paperwork. Should a paramedic need to be called to the scene, he could take this detailed SEMS case history and run with it, saving valuable time.
This back hallway contains the bathrooms nearest the party and is a well-traversed route. As each group of partyers passes, several girls drop off to see to their fallen sister. The attention overwhelms her, and she bursts out in bubbly tears.
"I'm so sorry," the girl wails, holding a dinner roll in her hands like a squirrel with a nut.
"Honey, why are you crying?" her sisters reassure her. "Honey, there is nothing to be sorry for. Honey!"
Interchangeable inebriated angels of mercy utter this line over and over again, like a mantra.
"No, I'm so sorry," the girl repeats. "I'm going to buy everybody Starbucks tomorrow, I promise."
"Hell, yes, you will," one of her sisters says playfully.
Eventually the tears subside, and the SEMS team, after determining that the girl's vital signs are not deteriorating, allow her to rejoin the party -- as long as she doesn't drink anymore. They'll do their best to monitor her, but they know they can't ensure 100 percent compliance. "We'll check her again in half an hour," Speidel says, "but that's pretty much all we can do. She doesn't seem that bad to me, though. I've been a lot drunker than that. We'll just try to keep an eye on her."
On the other side of the wall, the of-age party-goers (or at least the ones with good fakes) purchase cocktails in the bar, then join the others in the buffet line, loading their plates with roast beef and all the fixings before heading into the conference area/dining room. There a DJ spins, a hired photographer snaps pics of perfect white teeth, girls dance, a guy dressed like a pimp brandishes his cane like a sword, and the SEMS team sets up shop in the back of the room. A waiter brings complimentary cokes, and the three volunteers sit by their EMT equipment, looking attentive but somewhat bored.
"It's weird, because if everything goes how we want it to, our job is not to have a job," Speidel explains.
Feldman, a junior from New Jersey who's considering med school, tells Speidel what he missed earlier that evening. "This guy got off the bus and took one look at me and was like, 'Oh, shit!' -- like he was busted or something," he says with a laugh. "I was like, 'No man, it's cool.' And then he said, 'Really? Because I just smoked a bowl.' I said, 'Whatever, man, just don't die, and you and I will be cool.' And then he was like, 'And if I just did a key bump?' I just told him, 'Buddy, you do what you want to do, okay? I'm just here to make sure you don't die.'"
Speidel laughs, too. He's familiar with all the misconceptions about SEMS, how students worry that the volunteer EMTs will rat on people having a good time. But the group's goal is much more altruistic: The volunteers are here to save the lives of kids that doctors might never have a chance to reach.
A shitfaced boy who doesn't look a day over seventeen approaches the team, taking in their matching uniforms and bag of medical equipment. "So, are you guys, like, paramedics or something?" he manages to ask.
"No, we're EMTs," Feldman replies.
The drunk looks Feldman up and down, then nods his head. "Yeah, that's cool," he slurs in his best Fonz. "I used to be a lifeguard."
On September 17, 2004, the brothers living in the Chi Psi house in Boulder woke up to find that Lynn "Gordie" Bailey Jr. had not: The eighteen-year-old freshman pledge from Dallas was lying dead on the floor. During a long night of initiation events, Bailey and the other pledges had been taken to the mountains near Gold Hill, where they were told to help finish four 1.75s of whiskey and six 1.5-liter bottles of wine. After they'd taken down the booze, the pledges were returned to the house, where a keg was tapped and the drinking continued. Bailey passed out and never came to. His blood alcohol content was measured at .328, more than four times the state's legal limit.
Coming less than two weeks after the death of Samantha Spady, a sophomore at Colorado State University who'd died after a night of heavy drinking at a CSU frat house, Bailey's death had a very sobering effect on the CU campus. Candlelight vigils were held, and the Chi Psi chapter disbanded. Bailey's parents came to Boulder, where they helped set up Guidelines and Objectives of Responsible Drinking (GORD) with some of the Chi Psi brothers. And the school itself set up a program to educate incoming freshmen about alcohol and its potential for abuse.
"That taught us we needed to get ahead of the curve," says Robert Maust, chair of the university's standing committee on substance abuse. "We have students coming to us with a higher level of drinking experience by the twelfth grade than ever before, so we try to educate entering freshmen before they are even on campus taking classes."
But while the administration focused on educating students who had yet to enter CU, Anthony Rossi, a 21-year-old junior at the time, couldn't shake the feeling that Bailey didn't have to die. "It hit me hard," Rossi remembers, "because I had pledged a fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon. And as a member of a fraternity, it just got to me that he died at a pledge event. I kept thinking that if I was there, I would have known this kid was dying."
An EMT studying for a degree in molecular, cellular and development biology, Rossi knew there were other CU students with EMT training, many of them pre-med, who had nowhere to use their skills. He also realized that the total-abstinence solutions being kicked around on campus were unrealistic.
"It's impractical to tell kids not to drink," Rossi says. "College culture has been around for hundreds of years, and drinking has always been a part of it. But recently there has been this move toward excess and not toward responsibility. So I just thought it would be great if we could teach college kids the skills so that they could party the way they wanted to -- but if something happens, they would know how to deal with it. Or better yet, if we could make a program where we could come in as both students and trained EMTs to parties."
He took the idea to Ted Young, an instructor for one of his sociology classes and a registered emergency physician. Young thought it had promise, but he knew that the concept of students administering medical treatment to other students would scare university administrators.
"There were always considerations about liability," Young says. "Anthony is the dreamer and I'm the practical one, so I was full of, 'How are you going to manage this? What are you going to do with this problem? How are you going to manage people who have never been EMTs before, who basically have an EMT license but they've never done it? How are we going to convince the administration that this is not a liability, but a non-liability?'"
The two devised a system in which Young would serve as the group's medical advisor, essentially using his medical license as an umbrella under which student EMTs could work, thus freeing the university of any responsibility. "Any EMT agency has to operate under a medical advisor who is registered with the state," Young explains. "I have a malpractice policy that covers the group. We had to manage those kinds of tasks and concerns before the administration and the school would allow us to function.
"I had no trepidation about the idea whatsoever," adds Young, who has a law degree and taught medical-liability issues as a resident at Denver Health. "We're covered by EMS acts and other medical-practice acts that say that as long as you meet the standard of care, whatever it is, you're not liable for malpractice. Yes, it is a risk, but in the two years that I have done this, I have not been disappointed. There is no question that the benefits outweigh the risks."
They consulted numerous experts in the EMS community and developed a rigorous protocol for SEMS members. The volunteers would offer basic medical assistance and recognize warning signs, but never overstep their boundaries and wade into extensive care. They would also keep detailed charts of every patient interaction, which Young would review, monitoring the young medics and offering feedback on how they could improve their service. Based on their plan, CU administrators made SEMS an official student group in November 2004.
"The first event we went to, some bad things happened," Rossi remembers. "There was a student there who had over-drank severely, and we were able to help get him medical attention. Normally, that person would never have gone to a hospital, and who knows what would have happened then? But we recognized the situation and were able to get him help. I knew then we were on to something."
But not everyone recognized it.
"There was some real apprehension within the Greek community," Rossi explains. "Basically, there were people who were worried that if we went to their party, we would get them in trouble. But that's never been our mission. We have no intention of doing that."
"We don't wander around at frat parties taking beers out of hands," Young adds. "We're not parental. We're there to save lives and treat injuries. We don't walk around acting like the alcohol police. We're not narcs; we're not there to criticize. We're just there to be part of the party so that people don't die."
"I think SEMS is an absolutely fabulous program," says John Henderson, director of Greek life at CU. "With any newer program, people are going to have more questions about it, so it has taken the past year or two for the Panhellenic Society to come around. I think it just took people figuring out what, exactly, it is that the group does -- that they're there just to be an extra set of eyes and ears."
And sometimes feet.
"The first party I ever went to as a SEMS member was a Kappa Kappa Gamma formal," Speidel remembers. "They had rented out the entire top floor of some club. We were set up right by the dance floor, drinking our comped cokes, while the other guys at the party were still imbibing their liquid confidence. The girls wanted to dance, so we stepped up to the plate and started dancing with them. Our medical services weren't needed, but our social services were."
All of CU's sororities now invite SEMS members to their parties -- though not necessarily to dance. So do about a third of the fraternities, as well as numerous other student groups, which reach SEMS through its website, www.semsf.org. The organization has grown to about fifty members. And in May 2005, SEMS became an official foundation, complete with a seven-member board of directors and a goal of spreading the concept to other schools. "Binge drinking is a problem on most campuses across the United States," the website reads. "To save one life is not a sufficient reward. Many lives could be saved, and the culture of binge drinking could be changed with the SEMS model."
The University of Maryland has signed on, and both the University of Southern California and CSU have expressed interest. Rossi and Speidel went to those schools to discuss the merits of SEMS, but found themselves facing the same concern over liability initially raised by CU administrators.
"Whenever anyone hears that we want to do medical services and that we're students, there is a large question about liability," Rossi says. "But we've done an extensive analysis of our offerings, and tons of quality improvement and assessment to make sure we are doing this in the most professional manner and that all of our students are trained in the most professional way. Our medical director wouldn't be doing what he's doing if he didn't believe in it. He is able to communicate with other physicians the importance of our program. The real challenge is convincing administrations to waive their liability concerns."
Recognizing that some schools may never do that, SEMS has developed other services, too. It's set up a liaison program that trains CU students -- mostly fraternity members -- how to recognize problems, on the theory that if SEMS isn't asked to private events, at least students it has trained can help their friends. Members have also studied the various alcohol-awareness efforts and determined that what most schools are offering could definitely be improved. "What we would like to do is, if we go to a university and they are hesitant to set up a SEMS program, then we still have the resources to work with them to make their current programs better," Rossi explains.
He sees this sort of consulting as a natural evolution of SEMS's original objective. "Our mission as a nonprofit has to supersede our goal of establishing a SEMS program at a school," he says. "Our mission is to save lives, and if you are not interested in our specific program, then let us help you design something that would be the most effective for your campus."
"We believe that our program here is a success, and we know that it can be a success at other universities," Young adds. "Because schools just don't know what to do with the problem of binge drinking. It is epidemic, and sometimes it requires interventions that they have not thought of. We think our program is innovative, comprehensive and can help them make their campuses safer."
Coors Brewing Company believes; it partnered with SEMS this past June. And Coors is helping steer the group toward other companies that might provide financial assistance. Rossi, who once had ambitions of becoming a doctor, has entered a master's program in business administration at the University of Colorado at Denver so that he can become the leader he thinks SEMS needs.
"My initial aspirations were medically oriented, but I came upon this idea that I'm passionate about, and I want to see it through," he says. "I wanted to be a doctor to save lives, and we're developing a concept that has the opportunity to save lives that doctors can't because they don't have access to them. We are creating our own industry that is so unique, and it's really exciting. I've always said I wanted to do something that will benefit people's lives, and I really think with SEMS we're doing that."
This past April, Jesse Gomez, an eighteen-year-old CU student, was found dead in his dorm room after attending a Theta Xi party staffed by SEMS members. A toxicology test determined that Gomez did not have any drugs in his system and that his blood alcohol level was 0.159 -- over the legal limit but not high enough to account for his death, according to the Boulder coroner. Though all of Gomez's friends reported that he'd seemed normal that night, the news of his death still hit SEMS hard.
"It was really tough when I heard about that," Rossi remembers. "If he had gone down at that party, maybe he would still be here today. But we can't be everywhere; we can't be Superman. We're not going to be able to save every life, and our staff members and doctors need to understand that. But the more we are able to educate the friends of people like Jesse, the more we can create awareness, be it directly or indirectly, and the more lives we can save."
They have their work cut out for them. Despite a concerted effort by the university to increase alcohol-education awareness -- including new student groups and a strict "Two Strike Policy" that, after a second offense, sends a student to a workshop focusing on smart decision-making regarding alcohol -- CU's binge-drinking hasn't really diminished. "I would love to think we've made some progress," says committee chair Maust, "but I would expect that it has stayed the same. The Harvard School of Public Health shows that there has been no real change in the binge-drinking rate in the last decade."
That's one reason Maust feels that a program like SEMS is crucial on today's campuses.
"I think SEMS is a marvelous expression of what we need," he says. "If we're going to change a student culture, then we need the students to change it."
The hour has grown late, and the sorority formal continues to rage. Many of the coeds have moved on from the dining room and are now strolling through the back halls of the darkened event space, away from prying eyes.
"Kelly!" a young man yells loudly, peering out from his hiding place around a corner. "Kelly! Get the fuck over here and make out with me!"
A restaurant in the facility is still open, and while many parents continue to dine inside, their children run and leap and shriek their way through the hallways, darting in and out of the CU students sipping on small flasks or dry-humping each other against support beams. It's the circle of life.
But the SEMS team has no time to appreciate it. They're busy tending to another felled sister, this one having gone face down in a plate of pilaf. They moved her to a bathroom, where she puked up a small reservoir, and now she, too, sits on the couch of shame, resting her head on Feldman's shoulder. It's clear that she's much further gone than the first woman they dealt with this evening, and the SEMS volunteers are in their element. They take vital signs every couple of minutes, making sure they don't waver -- a sign of alcohol poisoning -- and Speidel hurries the paperwork in case paramedics need to be called.
After a half hour, vital signs are stable, but the girl is still wrecked. The team makes a call to a senior SEMS officer, then determines that the best course of action is to send the girl back to Boulder in a cab, accompanied by two sober sisters. For these three, the night is over -- but for the three SEMS members, it's just beginning. Several hours remain before the CU students are scheduled to clamber back aboard their chartered buses, and in the meantime, there's an entire party full of drunk people to monitor.
As the three girls make their way to the exit, the drunk girl bursts into tears.
"I'm so sorry!" she cries.
"Honey," one of her escorts assures her, "you have nothing to be sorry about."
"I'm so sorry," she says again, ignoring her sister. "Tomorrow morning, I swear to God, I'm buying Starbucks for everyone."
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