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Teens need first-aid training to help passed-out pals, experts say

Last fall, when Angela's 14-year-old went to a dance party, he stayed put instead of heading to offsite bush parties.

But a petite 14-year-old girl passed out after knocking back too many coolers and her drunken friends threw her limp body into a wheelbarrow and wheeled her home. An unconscious 15-year-old boy was forgotten by his friends in the woods. Later that night, someone realized he was missing and retrieved him.

Both teens spent the night at the hospital: The first woke up in a diaper, the second had her stomach pumped. (Angela did not want her full name used to protect the identities of the teens.)

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This is nothing new to Sam Gutman. Every September and October - peak high school drinking season - the emergency room doctor at Lions Gate Hospital in Vancouver witnesses the ugly aftermath of alcohol experimentation among 14-year-olds.

"Usually they drink way too much way too fast and they get … just about comatose most of the time," he says.

Most have healthy livers and are out of the hospital within a few hours. But others aren't brought in for hours after they've passed out - their friends think they'll be fine - and often do more damage to their bodies.

In all the cases, the outcomes could have been much worse. Many kids do drink: For instance, a 2007 Addictions Foundation of Manitoba survey of students found that about 48 per cent of Grade 8 boys and 41 per cent of Grade 8 girls said they had consumed alcohol in the past. But because of their lack of maturity, they are often unable to recognize or cope with real emergencies.

Medical and parenting experts say both parents and educators must acknowledge minors drink and teach them how to take care of each other when their health is at risk. A recent British survey sounded the alarm internationally, when it found one in seven kids in the 11- to 16-year-old group had been in an emergency situation after a friend drank too much. Forty-six per cent said they didn't know what to do.

"The most striking thing is year after year after year it's the same," says Dr. Gutman. "Any kind of program or intervention that could have an effect on reducing that would be useful."

In response to the British survey, the British Red Cross launched a "Life. Live It" school campaign to teach 11- to 16-year-olds how to cope in situations where their friends have overdone it.

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Here in Canada, programming is sketchy: Preteens and teens may not receive first aid training until the later years of high school. Because the 11- to 16-year-old group is underage, schools pitch their message older or are vague: it's either "don't drink and drive" or "don't drink until you're legal."

BACCHUS, a program run by the Toronto-based Student Life Education Company which teaches youth in post-secondary school how to spot alcohol poisoning and put their friends in the recovery position, receives funding from companies such as Labatt and Molson. But the organization doesn't provide the same kind of programming in high schools; it focuses more on safe driving.

"It's just not appropriate for the alcohol beverage industry to be involved in programs with people who are underage," Michael Westcott, the chair of the organization, says.

St. John Ambulance does not offer any alcohol-related education to high school students, though its first aid courses teach how to protect the airway and put someone in the recovery position - skills that can be used in cases of alcohol poisoning.

Suban, a 17-year-old student at the University of Waterloo, whose 14-year-old brother passed out from drinking whisky a couple of years ago, says Mothers Against Drinking and Driving made a presentation to his high school, but there was nothing on how to help someone who had overindulged.

Suban pieced together what to do based on instinct and what he'd seen on TV. He had no idea what the recovery position was so he and his friends just threw his brother on a bed so he could "sleep it off." They checked up on him every 10 minutes.

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"We dragged him to the bathtub. He puked on me so we take his clothes off and turn the shower on and I was actually scared for him."

Kathy Buckworth, a Mississauga, Ont.-based parenting expert and author of Shut Up and Eat: Tales of Chicken, Children and Chardonnay, likens the style of alcohol-related programming in schools to abstinence-only sex education. By high school, kids should be offered drinking-specific courses as part of their first aid training, to spot the signs of alcohol poisoning and take measures to prevent choking, she says.

Educating kids about drinking doesn't mean condoning it. "They're taught all about contraception and AIDS … but it's not like parents and teachers are saying, 'Run out and have sex,' " she says.

The bigger issue than first aid training is "how do you get kids to feel that it's okay to tattle on their friends if they're drunk?" Ms. Buckworth says.

The dangers of impaired driving have prompted many parents to sign agreements with their kids that they can call whenever they are intoxicated and need a ride home, and Ms. Buckworth says families should have similar pacts when it comes to calling about friends whose safety is in danger.

Emily, a 16-year-old in Belleville, Ont., says she was happy to have her parents on hand to help when two of her friends got out-of-control drunk at her house in May.

They'd mixed a water bottle full of vodka, three tiny bottles of vodka and a sippy cup filled with whisky together with three cans of cola and divided it among the three of them. Emily hated the taste of the concoction and poured hers down the sink, but her friends knocked theirs back.

One ended up with her head in the toilet for a long time while the other threw up all over the bathroom wall and then, when offered a glass of water, smashed it on the ground.

She was in over her head checking up on them and cleaning up after them, so she called her parents, who took care of the girls until they'd sobered up. They then gave the girls a frank lesson on how to mix drinks properly (one shot per drink, not four), acknowledging that they'd continue to drink, so they might as well be safe about it.

That night also scared the girls into making a rule about all future get-togethers when alcohol is involved: "One of us has to be sober in case something happens."

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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