In the trauma room at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., Brayndon Bass, 16, lies still on a gurney. A cervical collar immobilizes his neck and a spotlight illuminates his face. Several nurses buzz around the Enfield High School sophomore, who was texting while driving when he crashed his car. One nurse readies a hand-held ventilator to aid his labored breathing; another holds a receptacle by his face in case he vomits. When the nurse in charge, Annie Worshoufsky, uncoils a thick clear-plastic urinary catheter, which is typically forced up the penis, Brayndon chuckles nervously — as do several of his classmates who sit crisscross on the trauma room floor watching the mock emergency.
Brayndon volunteered to portray a seriously injured patient as part of Let’s Not Meet by Accident, a half-day educational program that encourages high school students, according to St. Francis’ website, to make “healthy choices in risky situations.” The two “nurses” were also played by students. But Worshoufsky, a real emergency-room nurse and clinical educator who wears aqua scrubs and a red rubber bracelet that reads “Texting Kills,” reminds the students that her job saving (often young) lives is not pretend. “This is a scary place,” she says in a loud yet fatigued voice, evoking a cross between drill sergeant and mom.
To connect with thekids, Worshoufsky tells the story of her son’s close friends, Jennifer Hamilton and Ashleigh Woodfield, both high school seniors, who died in a 2004 car accident on Interstate 495 while driving to visit a college near Boston, crossed the median and smacked into several trees. Worshoufsky holds up a T-shirt with a photo of the two smiling girls above the caption “In Loving Memory.”
“Don’t end up on a T-shirt,” she cautions. “Enjoy the rest of your day, guys.”
Dr. Anthony Morgan, Saint Francis’ former chief of general surgery and trauma, launched Let’s Not Meet by Accident in 1991.
He wanted to stem increasing violence in the troubled city of Hartford — a problem he understood. Morgan grew up in a rough part of Philadelphia, joined a gang and survived a stabbing and gunshot wound before he wised up. As a surgeon, Morgan frequently operated on kids less fortunate than he had been.
Marisol Feliciano, coordinator of the hospital’s Violence and Injury Prevention Program, took over running the program about eight years ago and now customizes the curriculum for each school. Today the focus is primarily on bad decisions made while driving — speeding, texting, drinking and even grooming. Many 10th-graders at Enfield High School, which is in Enfield, a suburb of Hartford, commute to school by car.
Students from inner-city schools often receive a meet-and-greet with police officers, says Feliciano, who points out that in Hartford homicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers. Visiting police officers, she explains, “talk about, ‘if we pull you over, this is what would happen. This is what we do when we confiscate guns.’” The breakout sessions, she says, offer the cops the chance to rebrand themselves as approachable instead of just “this guy who will arrest you.”
Each year, about 700 high school students attend Let’s Not Meet by Accident. Other hospitals across the country operate similar injury-prevention initiatives. Some, though, include tours of the morgue, a tactic Saint Francis eschews. Aside from the mock trauma, all students visiting the hospital watch a Life Star helicopter, a flying triage unit, land on Saint Francis’ helipad (poor weather grounds the chopper today), which amps up the program’s “cool factor,” says Feliciano, a bubbly 38-year-old woman fluent in teen who serves as the event’s moderator. Later that morning, she playfully leads a game of Simon Says, in which players wear goggles that distort their vision, simulating the effects of binge drinking and concussions. It looks like shop class gone wrong.
To measure the program’s impact, students answer an anonymous, confidential survey. Sample questions run along these lines: Do you agree that carrying a weapon makes you feel safe?; or do you agree that drinking and driving can cause severe injuries? Three months later, Feliciano visits schools, with free pizza as a perk, to re-administer the questionnaire. “When they didn’t know that wearing a helmet can prevent them from getting a traumatic brain injury, three months later they are marking the right answer,” she says. In the initial survey, many students admitted that they didn’t wear seatbelts. In the follow-up, “the majority are now saying they are wearing a seatbelt,” says Feliciano.
During a lunch break in the hospital conference room, Brayndon, the car crash “victim,” who looks like he just started shaving, admits he occasionally forgets to wear a seatbelt. He now vows to be more vigilant. “That experience makes you want to be cautious,” he says of his uncomfortable stint on the gurney. “You want to do everything to avoid being there.” Asked if he will buckle up consistently a few months from now, Brayndon pauses. “Maybe,” he says.
But will knowing the right answers on a questionnaire ultimately mean that teens will make the right decisions on the road? That’s open to debate. “Surveys show that teenagers are well aware of the risks inherent in many dangerous activities,” says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of a new book, “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” which will be published in September. He doubts that initiatives like Let’s Not Meet by Accident can impart caution. “If you are fooling around…and you become sexually aroused, but you don’t have a condom, the information on safe sex that you heard two months before in school is not likely to lead you to put the brakes on.”
Adolescents, observes Steinberg, are wired to succumb to temptation. During puberty, there is a change in levels of dopamine (the hormone associated with drive and motivation) in the brain, increasing the “inclination to seek rewards, which makes them more likely to pay attention to the potential benefits of a risky decision relative to the potential downside,” he says.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that teens have apparently become more aware of safety issuesFrom 1993 to 2013, the number of teens who carried a weapon on school property in the previous 30 days dropped by more than half. In 1993, nearly 40 percent of teens had ridden in cars with drivers who had been drinking; 20 years later, the number dropped to just below 22 percent. And adolescents were 29 percent more likely to use a condom in 2013 than they were in 1991. Could increased education and improved outreach have spurred smarter behavior?
Injury-prevention experts credit increasingly restrictive licensing of teen drivers, tougher traffic laws and better designed cars for improving traffic safety. Yet Tim Hollister, author of “Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through the Dangers of Driving,” deems education as worthwhile. Hollister, whose 17-year-old son Reid died in a car accident in 2006, thinks the finale of Let’s Not Meet by Accident — dramatic testimony from someone who caused a devastating trauma — proves more effective than scare tactics. “Certain things penetrate teenagers, and it seems to be the human consequences of what’s left behind if they make a bad driving decision,” says Hollister.
The wisecracks, smirks, and yawns common on mandatory field trips stop cold when David Graham stands before the 10th-graders. He dresses like his audience: royal-blue T-shirt, pressed jeans and hipster sneakers. Graham, 31, grew up in nearby East Windsor, Conn. He attended William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., on an academic scholarship and dreamed of becoming a teacher. In his senior year, he upgraded his broken-down Mazda with his first “nice car” — a black 2002 Pontiac Grand Am GT.
On May 12, 2005, Graham, 23 at the time, gave Andrew and Matthew Daigle, his then-girlfriend’s brothers, a ride in his new car. Graham had not been drinking and had a good driving record. But, according to a police investigation that analyzed his car’s sensing diagnostic module (equivalent to an airplane’s black box), five seconds before his Grand Am’s airbags deployed, the car was racing down an East Windsor back road at 101 miles per hour.
Graham lost control of the car, slamming into a Toyota Corolla, then struck two trees. The Corolla’s driver was severely injured, as was Andrew Daigle, 17, in the Grand Am’s back seat. Graham miraculously survived the crash with minor physical injuries, but his leg was pinned by the wreckage. Upon regaining consciousness, “I twisted my body the best that I could,” Graham recalls. “[Matthew] wasn’t moving, and there was blood coming out of his eyes and ears.” His friend Matthew, a high school senior who played video games and rooted for the New York Rangers, was pronounced dead at Hartford Hospital. “Here I caused all this pain to all these people and their loved ones, and I was OK,” Graham confesses to the rapt, silent audience. “And I hated myself for it.”
He spent 10 months in prison at the Enfield Correctional Institution. His first cellmate, a murderer, had stabbed his victim repeatedly with a screwdriver. His second was a pedophile. Graham suffered a few bad beatings. The food was “atrocious” he says; one lunch included baked beans “swimming with maggots.” Upon release, Graham, a convicted felon, could not land a teaching job.
But today in Saint Francis’ conference room, Graham, who now works in information technology and has a wife and two children, serves as a de facto teacher. Robert Barnes, Enfield High’s health and physical education teacher who chaperones his students, believes that the testimony from trauma victims profoundly affects his kids. Let’s Not Meet by Accident, he says, reminds “invincible” teenagers just how vulnerable they actually are. “Hopefully,” he says, “it does stay with them.”