Carson Starkey always believed the world was full of unlimited possibilities. And throughout his life, he proved it.
He played on his high school’s tennis, cross-country, and lacrosse teams and competed in cycling tournaments up to the international level, all while graduating in the top ten percent of his class at Stephen F. Austin High School. Carson loved the outdoors and frequently volunteered his time to projects such as building hiking and biking trails. He could get along with people of all ages and held tight relationships with both friends and family.
A passion for architecture led Carson from Austin, Texas all the way to Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, California, where he majored in architectural engineering. During his first quarter he pledged to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a move that surprised his family, who did not think he would join Greek life.
On December 1, 2008, the fraternity held its traditional “Brown Bag Night,” where Carson and the other pledges were each given a bag full of a variety of alcohol and told to finish it all before midnight. In just twenty minutes, Carson emptied his bag of two 24 ounce Steel Reserve beers, a 16 ounce Sparks alcoholic energy drink, and a fifth of rum split between him and another person. Pledges additionally passed around a bottle of Everclear.
People noticed Carson drooling, his eyes gaining a glazed look, and his body going limp, before he passed out entirely. It was later discovered that his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.4.
Some of the fraternity members brought Carson to a car to take him to a hospital but ultimately changed their minds out of fear of placing themselves and their chapter in trouble. Instead, they moved Carson back inside the house and onto a dirty mattress with a trash can nearby, leaving him alone and unmonitored the rest of the night.
Carson never woke up.
The next day, Carson’s mother Julia dialed back a missed call from earlier that morning. The San Luis Obispo County Coroner’s Office answered.
That was how the Starkey’s learned of their son’s death via alcohol poisoning.
What is Alcohol Poisoning
Despite its availability and popularity, alcohol is a known toxin. The human body can only process alcohol so fast—approximately one drink per hour. Any more, and the alcohol will enter the bloodstream quicker than the body can metabolize it, which leads to a person being intoxicated (see toxic is even right there in one of the most common synonyms for drunk!).
When a person drinks far more than his or her body’s threshold, such as when binge drinking, he or she risks alcohol slowing down vital bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, and gag reflex. The loss or impairment of these functions can lead to choking, hypothermia, heart irregularity, organ failure, and more, all of which—as in the terrifyingly sad case of Carson Starkey—can lead to death. Survivors may suffer from irreversible brain damage.
Every year approximately 4,300 teens and young adults die from alcohol poisoning. Six people (of all ages) are killed by it every day in the United States alone.
Six people. Every day.
In 2011, Grammy award-winning singer Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning after a session of binge drinking depressed her respiratory system. Country musician Keith Whitley was similarly found dead with a BAC of 0.47. Bon Scott, the original vocalist of the rock band AC/DC, choked to death on his own vomit because booze had shut down his gag reflex. His friend had left him in his car that night to “sleep it off.”
Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning
If you ever drink or plan to be in a situation around drinkers, it’s crucial you know the signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do. Some basic indicators of alcohol poisoning include:
- Slow, shallow, or otherwise irregular breathing
- Confusion or if the person seems to be in a semi-conscious stupor
- Skin that feels cold or clammy or has turned pale or bluish
- Eyes that have dark circles underneath or appear sunken
Any of these symptoms could be a sign of a fatal dose of alcohol, and immediate action must be taken.
What To Do
Don’t ignore the problem or think the person simply needs to sleep it off. In fact, his condition will grow worse even as he sleeps, because the alcohol will continue to be absorbed into the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. As the friends of Carson Starkey, Bon Scott, and countless other victims have learned, leaving a person to sleep it off could mean he’ll never wake up.
Rather, as soon as you observe any of the symptoms of alcohol poisoning call 911. Don’t wait just a little bit longer to see if the person’s state will improve; his condition is more likely to worsen over time, not get better.
While you wait for help, stay with the person and do your best to keep them calm, still, and comfortable. Monitor his breathing and heartbeat.
Now is not the time for you or anyone else to lecture “I told you you shouldn’t have drank so much,” or make jokes about him “being a lightweight.” If he is even able to comprehend what you are saying, it may very well make him angry and attempt to run away, drink more, fight somebody, or do something else equally stupid and dangerous.
If the intoxicated person lies down you absolutely must ensure he is not on his back or stomach. These positions make it very easy for someone to choke and asphyxiate on his own vomit.
Instead, lay him down on his side. If you need to roll him over to this position, use the Bacchus Maneuver (as demonstrated in this video):
But What If I Get in Trouble?
If the fraternity brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon hadn’t stopped to think about this question, Carson Starkey might still be alive.
Should someone display signs of alcohol poisoning, you have both a moral and legal responsibility to get her immediate medical attention. Even if you are unsure of her condition, call 911 right away. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when a person’s life is on the line.
Still, countless cases of alcohol-related emergencies (including but not limited to alcohol poisoning) go unreported every year because people, particularly minors, are afraid of getting in trouble for drinking. For example, in a Cornell University study 19% of college students reported being in an alcohol-related situation where they should have called for help, but only 4% did.
First of all, the consequences for possessing or consuming alcohol as a minor or furnishing alcohol to a minor are nothing compared to the criminal negligence, manslaughter, and/or other severe charges a person may face if somebody dies from alcohol poisoning, and she did nothing to prevent it.
Second, in order to encourage underage drinkers to call for help when it is needed, many states, including California, have enacted Medical Amnesty laws. Under this legislation, if an intoxicated minor calls 911 for herself or another person—and stays with the person in the case of the latter—she is guaranteed protection from criminal prosecution.
Worried about how your friend will react to you calling 911 on her behalf? Don’t be.
If any sane, logical person wakes up in a hospital bed and learns she was treated for a potentially life-threatening condition, the last thing she’ll do is bust your chops for ruining her night at a party. Reaching out for help is not snitching or being a tattle tale—it’s looking out for other people. It shows you have their back and care more about them than about keeping the party going or getting judged for “worrying too much.” It’s that very worry that may save your friend’s life.
Alcohol poisoning is a serious and rampant issue. Knowing the signs and being brave enough to take action can mean the difference between life and death.
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By Tyler Wroblewski
For more on Carson’s story please visit awareawakealive.org
Before your child goes to a party, make sure to have a serious conversation about alcohol and other drugs. Ask what your teen would do if he found himself in this situation and inform him of the risks and signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do.
Sigma Alpha Epislon House: Original photo by Kane5187 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped by author.
Amy Winehouse: By Rama (cropped version from) [CeCILL (http://www.cecill.info/licences/Licence_CeCILL_V2-en.html) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Passed Out Wine Girls: By danielle_blue at https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielleblue/1453928309
Talking on the Phone: By Marjan Lazarevski at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mlazarevski/9645066390
Police Line: By Tony Webster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hospital Bed: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Paramedics: By Chris Wagner at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons