Nurse Leads Teen DUI Prevention Campaign

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By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

February 21, 2014 - Emergency department nurse Judi Nelson, RN, has cared for her share of victims of vehicular crashes caused by people who drove under the influence of alcohol. When presented, she seized a volunteer opportunity to try to prevent teens from getting behind the wheel after drinking.

“All you have to see is one accident and the effects on other people to have it engrained that you need to [do something],” said Nelson, a nurse at Cass County Memorial Hospital in Atlantic, Iowa. She also had a friend killed by a driver under the influence.

“You see a life with so much to offer wasted by a preventable, senseless deed,” she said. “Any life that can be saved, that’s what you want to do.”

Nearly 30 people die in motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol every day in the United States; that’s one every 48 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seventeen percent of children who died of traffic deaths in 2010 were associated with an alcohol-impaired driver. In 2010, law enforcement officers arrested more than 1.4 million drivers for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.

Crash risk is already significantly higher for teens and younger adults than older people, and alcohol increases the risk of crashes and fatalities.

People often think drinking and driving only affects them, Nelson said, and if they do not do it, they will be OK. But many times, it also involves other people.

“It is everybody’s problem,” Nelson said. “Innocent people die, too.”

A unique, interactive “reality program” 

Judi Nelson pushes DUI prevention with Every 15 Minutes program.
Judi Nelson, RN, received the Iowa Hospital Association Hospital Hero award for orchestrating the Every 15 Minutes program, which teaches high school students about the consequences of drinking and driving.

Nelson has presented the national Every 15 Minutes program at area high schools since 2011. The two-day program demonstrates to teens the dangers that exist when someone drinks and drives. By re-enacting real-life risks, it challenges participating high school students to really think and understand potential consequences.

The school pre-selects student leaders from all groups at school--athletes, honor roll students, saints and sinners.

“If we can get to the leaders and they change their ways, they will lead the rest of their friends,” Nelson explained.

During the school day, every 15 minutes a “grim reaper” goes to the classes and calls those pre-selected students. While out of the classroom, the Every 15 Minutes team applies white make up and a wrist tag, gives the students a T-shirt and removes their cell phones. Meanwhile in the various classes, a law enforcement officer meets with their peers and tells them the students were involved in an alcohol-related accident and a member of the clergy reads an obituary written by the students’ parents. The pre-selected students become the “living dead” and return to class.

About an hour before the end of the day, Nelson stages a mock collision and applies make-up to simulate injuries to the students involved in the crash.

“We do everything as real as we can,” Nelson said.

An air ambulance arrives, police radios blare, fire rescue removes the injured, the coroner pronounces the person dead, the parents identify the body and police arrest the “teen driving under the influence.” He or she is taken to the courthouse. The “injured students” are taken by ambulance to the hospital and the dead are placed in body bags and taken to the morgue.

“It’s very choreographed,” Nelson said.

The “drunk driver” is fingerprinted, must change into prison garb and is placed in a cell. The 40-50 living dead go to the courthouse and watch the prosecution of the “driver under the influence.”

At the hospital, one of the injured victims suffers a cardiac arrest. The health care team conducts a mock code and, ultimately, must tell the parents that the teen did not survive.

In the evening, the living dead attend a retreat where they can don goggles that simulate alcohol impairment and take a sobriety test. Others may try to text and drive a golf cart to experience the risks. Speakers have included convicted drunken drivers, talking about their experience and how the episode changed their lives. The students then write a letter to their parents, which starts out “Dear Mom and Dad, today I died of an alcohol-related collision and I wanted you to know _______.”

The parents attend separately, listen to speakers and write a similar letter about how the death affected them.

The students spend the night at the retreat and have no contact with their family, to continue the separation of death.

The next morning, the program holds a mock funeral with caskets, flowers, obituaries and a speaker. The letters are read aloud.

“You will see teenage boys crying and kids hugging their parents,” Nelson said. “We give them the real-life consequences without the risk.”

Students retain more by doing things and living it for a short term, she explained.

“It’s a big undertaking,” said Nelson, who has involved people throughout her community--including police, fire rescue, the hospital, funeral homes and florists--in the presentations. All of the food is donated. Videographers record the event.

Nelson organizes volunteers into 16 teams, so no one feels overwhelmed.

“I’m the orchestra leader,” Nelson said. “They do the work.”

Students and parents have requested she bring the program to their schools. Those who have participated continue to talk with Nelson about it two or three years later.

“If they are still thinking about it three years down the road, it has made an impact,” Nelson said. “Students who were in it three years ago are offering to help this year.”

The CDC considers health promotion efforts in schools an effective measure. Nelson is convinced Every 15 Minutes works.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I have done as a volunteer,” said Nelson. “Every school should be doing this.”

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