I sit next to more than 20 teenagers. It’s not hard to remember what it was like to be one. They exude bold defiance. There’s almost a competition to see who can look the most bored and who can care the least. At the moment, there is a lack of understanding or concern for the decisions that brought them to the Youthful Drinking and Driving Prevention Program held at Parkland.
The program is offered by Dallas Challenge, a nonprofit organization, which collaborates with Parkland and other community resources to steer youth away from destructive behavior. It’s designed for young people, mostly teens, to deter driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs as well as curb underage drinking. The eight-hour course encourages participants to listen, interact and think about the consequences of their decisions.
It’s their decisions that brought them here. Instructors Robert McCann and Dolores White ask each teen their decision. One by one each participant states their age, offense, total cost of ordeal, if their license was suspended and if they are on probation. Most were drunk, pulled over in the wee hours of the morning. When one describes his arrest, he calls it “the most expensive night of [his] life.” He’s spending thousands of dollars for his charge of possession of an illegal substance.
“The average DUI can cost you up to about $17,500,” McCann tells the group.
As high as those numbers are, the financial consequences don’t cause much of a stir, but we’re about to see something that will.
Parkland trauma nurse April Gradel experiences the consequences of intoxicated driving firsthand. When she speaks, she’s frank, heartfelt and graphic. As Gradel details her interactions with drunken drivers and their victims, a picture of a drunk driving crash appears on the overhead display. The car and victim are so scrambled that it takes a moment to understand the image.
It’s a few moments of staring at something that looks flat and bended before I realize I’m looking at the victim’s head, burrowed in his car. Nearly a dozen devastating photos follow. With each, I can’t recognize the object as a vehicle; I can’t identify the body as a human. She later shows X-rays of drunken driving victims and helps us recognize that the odd shape in someone’s upper chest is their stomach, or that there are supposed to be a dozen bones where we see nothing.
The program has actually grown softer; in years past, participants were taken to the morgue. Now, Gradel leads us to Trauma Room I.
“Sometimes we can fix them,” she tells us, “but sometimes we get injuries no one can fix.” Here, with 23 youths surrounding an empty bed, she ends her talk with a frank plea, “I don’t want to see you here.”
When we return from the Emergency Department, Dolores White tells us everything there is to know about alcohol awareness, from how it can saturate our blood to drink equivalency – how liquor, beer and other types of alcohol compare to one another. We even try on goggles that emulate the feeling of being intoxicated and try to walk in a straight line. Few can.
The day ends with us completing a form dictating our future plans. Everyone asks themselves a fundamental question, “What will I do now?” Dolores asks for volunteers to answer the question, and against my expectation that teens only reluctantly volunteer to speak up, one rises from her chair.
“My dad said he would get sober if I did ... I haven’t drank since,” she says.
“I think I’ll wait until I’m 21, but even then,” says another, “I don’t really know if it’s worth it.”
More answers continue – without defiance, without the willingness to be cool. They are really answering the question, and their words are neither artificial nor forced. As soon as the last teen gives his answer, the program is over. We get up from our seats in a Parkland conference room that conspicuously overlooks the ER entrance outside.
All 23 youths are now less likely to see it from the inside.