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Alcohol misuse leads to ER

Megan Doyle | Wednesday, October 5, 2011

At least 10 ambulances have responded to alcohol-related incidents on Notre Dame’s campus so far this semester, according to Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP).

NDSP Director Phil Johnson said extreme intoxication should not be taken lightly.

“Sometimes a student sees another student drink too much,” Johnson said. “Putting them to bed can be a very dangerous idea … You can’t simply put someone to bed who is intoxicated who might aspirate and stop breathing.”

In 2010-2011, Johnson said ambulances transported individuals to the hospital for alcohol poisoning on 78 occasions.

The prior school year, NDSP reported 76 alcohol-related dispatches for ambulances, and from 2008-2009, 71. At one of two local hospitals, students can receive treatment ranging from rehydration to stomach pumping for alcohol poisoning.

Johnson said these statistics include both Notre Dame students and visitors to campus. Football weekends increase the risk of excessive intoxication on campus, Johnson said, and more alcohol-related trips to the hospital occur during the fall semester.

“During the fall we often see an uptick, definitely an uptick on Saturdays [for football weekends],” Johnson said.

Emergency medical responders need to evaluate a number of factors when they deal with a student who is extremely intoxicated. Johnson said an EMT will evaluate a patient’s level of responsiveness, general medical history, ability to speak and stand, blood alcohol content (BAC) and other factors.

“From a first response standpoint, we make sure we get appropriate medical care to someone who needs it,” he said.

In over 20 years with NDSP, Johnson said both law enforcement and campus officials have become more proactive about alcohol education.

“I think now that we are more keenly aware of the perils of alcohol with an overdose, we are operating with more caution,” Johnson said.

Some students are reluctant to call an ambulance for an underage friend in danger because they are afraid of disciplinary consequences for that person or for themselves, Johnson said.

But he said discipline is far from the minds of emergency responders.

“We’re trying to make sure people are safe and are getting the best care when presented with a potentially life-threatening situation,” he said. “Call 9-1-1, and take care of the person. Life safety comes first.”

Kathleen O’Leary, director of Residence Life for the Office of Student Affairs, agreed with Johnson.

“When a friend has consumed alcohol and you are concerned about their well-being, always contact hall staff or NDSP at 9-1-1 for medical assistance,” O’Leary said. “Leaving a friend to ‘sleep it off’ is extremely dangerous … While the University does not currently have a medical amnesty policy, the surrounding circumstances of an alleged violation of University policy are always taken into consideration.”

O’Leary’s office handles discipline cases for students who are taken to the hospital for excessive drinking.

“When addressing instances of severe intoxication, our office’s primary concern is for that student’s physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being,”

O’Leary said. “Students will meet with us to go through the disciplinary process, which we intend to be an educational one.”

The disciplinary process is a chance to have “an educational conversation” about decision-making, as well as the University’s expectations and policies regarding alcohol possession and consumption. O’Leary said students could also receive alcohol assessment and education through the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education.

“If the Office of Residence Life determines that a student is responsible for a violation of University policy, the nature of the offense and the circumstances surrounding it, the student’s prior disciplinary violations — if any — the impact of the misconduct on the community and prior similar cases will be among the factors considered in determining a sanction,” O’Leary said.

According to du Lac, this sanction could include alcohol counseling, loss of on-campus parking and driving privileges, community service and disciplinary probation, among other punishments.

Christine Nowak, director of the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education, said her office exists to educate students about the consequences of alcohol abuse.

“We are student-friendly, student-driven and educational,” Nowak said. “We’re not a part of discipline, not a counseling office and not the police. We are giving students the power to make better decisions.”

Excessive drinking is a problem on most college campuses, Nowak said.

“There’s a progression, and at the far end of that progression is alcohol poisoning, sexual assault and property damage,” Nowak said. “The biggest change has to happen at the student level with students positively confronting other students … This is a safety concern and a health concern.”

While some students might shy away from these conversations, Nowak said expressing concern about dangerous drinking habits to a friend is important.

“For some folks, that’s all they need to hear from a friend,” Nowak said. “I have great faith that students can change the culture if they want to and make it safe and healthy for everyone … A lot of people have a social life without alcohol.”