Wednesday, January 03, 2007

CU SEMS Program Tries to Help Partying Students

Life of the Party; For drunk CU students SEMS volunteers lend a helping hand.
By Adam Cayton-Holland

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.

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."

Rossi ... 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.

Copyright 2006 New Times, Inc.