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ND drinking habits under scrutiny

Kaitlynn Riely | Sunday, September 9, 2007

The “red zone,” the term for the mental and physical state of someone with a blood alcohol content at or above 0.25, is not uncharted territory for some Notre Dame students – a point that a South Bend Common Council member has made while pushing for the passage of a new ordinance to curtail student parties.

At a meeting of the South Bend Community Relations Committee to discuss the proposed ordinance, Council member Al “Buddy” Kirsits discussed a printout of a Powerpoint presentation showing statistics on drinking and hospital visits. The presentation listed general statistics about college drinking from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and data about medical services provided to intoxicated patients at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in South Bend.

But determining the actual number of Notre Dame students who are taken to the hospital each year is difficult because records of people admitted by school affiliation are not kept, hospital spokesmen said.

But anecdotal evidence from rectors, University health services and the hospitals shows that Notre Dame students are taken to the hospital for alcohol-related illness fairly regularly.

Siegfried rector Father John Conley said he has had students in his hall and students from other dorms in or around Siegfried occasionally sent to the hospital due to alcohol use since he first became rector in 1997.

“I would say, no, it’s not an every-weekend occurrence, and no, it’s not a very rare occurrence,” he said. “It’s in the middle.”

Although he doesn’t keep data about ambulance trips, he said the hospital visits tended to be around football season.

Kirsits, in addition to serving on the Common Council, is also a battalion chief at Fire Station No. 2 at 110 East Marion in South Bend.

Over the course of his public safety career, Kirsits said at the Aug. 20 meeting, he has heard paramedics and hospital workers complain about the large numbers of Notre Dame students who are taken to the hospital for alcohol-induced illness.

Patricia Brubaker, the assistant director of Clinical Services at University Health Services, worked as an emergency room nurse at St. Joseph’s hospital for 27 years, where she said she saw high numbers of Notre Dame students admitted for alcohol intoxication. Now at Notre Dame, Brubaker said she doesn’t see any of the severe medical problems caused by excessive drinking at the health center – since they do not have the resources to treat those students.

But she estimated that at least 10 students a weekend come to the health center with what she called “concomitant injuries” – injuries caused by falls or otherwise inadvisable behavior that would not have happened if the student had not been drinking.

“A lot of the stuff we see, the root cause is the alcohol consumption, but you can’t say you never fall without alcohol,” she said. “But many of things we see are related to alcohol consumption.”

Brubaker said her estimate of 10 a weekend cannot be corroborated with actual data, since the symptom is logged as an injury, not as a drinking accident.

“Working in the ER, I used to see a lot and wonder about Notre Dame,” she said. “But really, working over here, we have a lot of great kids. I don’t want to give the impression that all the students drink so much, but it is a problem that we see, and a lot of illnesses and actions that happen, happen because of this.”

At St. Joseph’s, Brubaker said she saw how a night of drinking could lead to sexual assault, a head injury, a week in the Intensive Care Unit or missing graduation.

“It’s just one night of revelry that has changed their lives,” she said.

When Kirsits was explaining the motivation behind the ordinance, he cited the dangers of a college drinking culture as a reason why the ordinance should be passed.

The ordinance Kirsits co-sponsored with fellow Council member Timothy Rouse would require residents of boarding houses – places where more than two unrelated persons live – to apply for a permit to have gatherings at which more than 25 people would have access to alcohol. The next public hearing for the ordinance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

In the Powerpoint presentation he discussed, Kirsits cited numbers from St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, listing the number of emergency room visits coded as alcohol abuse diagnoses. St. Joseph public relations communicator Mike Stack verified the numbers as accurate.

In 2005, during the months of August to November, 119 people were admitted to St. Joseph with alcohol abuse diagnoses on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Of the 119, 32 people were under the legal drinking age of 21.

In 2006, 151 people were admitted to the hospital on the weekends during the months of August through November. Of these, 44 people were underage.

The hospital does not keep records of the number of Notre Dame students admitted to the hospital, Stack said, so these numbers include both Notre Dame students and the rest of the area population. But, he said, on football weekends during the fall it is primarily Notre Dame students who are brought to the hospital with sickness caused by alcohol consumption.

Ruth Linster, the media liaison for Memorial Hospital in South Bend, said Memorial, like St. Joseph, does not keep data specifically for Notre Dame students. Linster mentioned another difficulty in getting a completely accurate picture of the number of Notre Dame students who are taken to the hospital as a result of overconsumption of alcohol.

“The way doctors code things make a big difference,” she said. “If someone comes in for a broken arm, it will be coded for a broken arm. If somebody has had a beer or two [and then broke their arm], they are not going to be coded as acute alcohol concentration.”

Memorial’s figures for people who come in with acute alcohol concentration, Linster said, are surprisingly low. But she said the reason for that could be that St. Joseph’s Hospital is closer to the Notre Dame campus and off-campus student housing.

From August through November of 2005, Linster said, 11 people were admitted to the hospital and coded for acute alcohol concentration. Those people were probably not all students, Linster said, as there was only one 18-year-old and the other 10 ranged in age from their 20s to 40s.

“What it does support,” Linster said, “is that you don’t have to be a Notre Dame student at a party to get into trouble with alcohol.”

Knowing when a person needs to be taken to the hospital or whether they just need a glass of water can be difficult, Brubaker said, since different bodies can tolerate different levels of alcohol.

A person’s health also depends on what food he ate earlier in the day, how long he has been drinking and what kind of alcohol he has been drinking, Brubaker said.

A person should be taken to the hospital, she said, if he can’t walk, complete sentences or doesn’t wake up after provocation.

Sister Susan Bruno has been the rector of Pasquerilla West for 15 years. This year, she said, a student was taken to the hospital in record time – a freshman on the first night of freshman orientation.

But normally, she said, the number of people taken to the hospital depends on what is going on in the hall or on campus. If several dorms are having dances on the same night, the number of students taken to the hospital probably increases, she said.

Bruno said her hall has not had too many students taken to the hospital. In less severe situations, she said, it can be handled within the dorm, and hall staff will sit with the resident through the night.

“The reason we send them to the hospital is that we are concerned about their health,” Bruno said. “Because we are not doctors, we do need a professional to handle the case.”