One Deadly Night
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After Shelby Allen drank too much vodka, her friends went to bed thinking she would "sleep it off." Here's why Shelby never woke up—and how her friends could have saved her life.
It was the first night of winter break, and 17-year-old Shelby Allen—like any high school student with a couple of weeks of freedom in front of her—was in a celebratory mood. She begged to borrow her older sister’s silver Volkswagen Beetle, then picked up her best friend, Alyssa. The two girls spent the rest of the evening doing the usual—driving around their rural California town, stopping for tacos.
But around midnight, the evening headed in an atypical direction. Another friend, Kayli, texted an invitation to sleep over, enticing them with the promise of a fully stocked bar. Shelby and Alyssa accepted, and soon the three girls were chugging vodka.
Shelby, a straight-A student and an all-star athlete, didn’t have a lot of experience with alcohol. But that night, she had a goal that no one really understood: to down 15 shots. Before long, she started vomiting. Kayli helped her to the bathroom and placed a towel on the edge of the toilet bowl where she could rest her head.
Later, when Kayli went to check on her, Shelby looked awful.
“Shelb is just half snoring shaking,” Kayli wrote to a mutual friend in a series of text messages. “she wont sober up at all . . . im freaking out have no ide wat to do. . . neeed hellp . . . ”*
But Kayli didn’t get help. She didn’t wake up her parents or call 911. Instead, she decided to let Shelby sleep it off.
The next morning, Shelby was dead from something called acute alcohol poisoning—and sadly, her death wasn’t an unusual case. More than 5,000 people under age 21 die from alcohol-related injuries every year, including alcohol poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hundreds more are rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment. Too often, friends and loved ones simply don’t recognize the risk.
Alcohol is a toxin, and as it enters the bloodstream, the liver is the organ tasked with flushing it out. The liver can handle about one drink per hour, but if someone’s chugging beers or downing shots, it can’t pump out the poison fast enough. “Shelby had every symptom of alcohol poisoning imaginable—her friend was even texting about them,” says Shelby’s mom, Debbie Allen. “And not one person called for help that night.”
ON A BINGE
While Shelby’s determination to get drunk may sound extreme, experts say that such reckless habits are actually the norm among teens who drink—whether they realize it or not. According to the CDC, 90 percent of underage drinking is in the form of binge drinking. That’s defined as four or more drinks within two hours if you’re a girl and five or more if you’re a guy.
The CDC defines one drink as a 12-ounce can or bottle of regular beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or one shot of liquor like vodka or tequila. But with different cup sizes and varying alcohol concentrations, it can be impossible to know how much you’re actually consuming in real time.
“If you’re pouring out of a big bottle in your parents’ liquor cabinet or drinking out of a red cup in someone’s basement, you’re not measuring,” says Ralph Blackman, CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. “So you may think, ‘I’m fine, I only had three drinks,’ but those three drinks could be the equivalent of seven or eight.”
Madi, 18, of Richmond, Virginia, found this out firsthand when she went to a party last summer. “I knew I had a safe ride home, so I decided to drink,” she says. Someone started handing out Jell-O shots. “I thought they tasted good, so I kept having them,” she said. “I didn’t realize how they hit you all at once. At one point I was outside with my friends, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really drunk.’”
That’s the last thing Madi remembers about that night, but her friends say she was out of control: slurring words, stumbling around, and eventually vomiting. Then she lapsed into a stupor and no one could get her to respond. They called 911 and an ambulance rushed her to the hospital.
“I’ve heard all these stories about that night, and I don’t know which ones are true,” Madi says. “It’s insanely terrifying not to know what you did or who you talked to or what happened to you.” But there’s one thing that’s even more terrifying: the fact that she could have died that night if her friends hadn’t recognized that something was wrong—and known that the right thing to do was to call for help.
While drinking may seem to give people an initial burst of energy, alcohol is actually a type of drug known as a depressant, which slows down your brain and bodily systems as it builds up in your blood. As a teen, you’re especially vulnerable to alcohol poisoning because your body is more resistant to the typical signals that might tell you you’ve had too much. That’s why it’s crucial to act fast once the signs do appear.
“You would have to drink about two or three times as much as an adult before you’d start walking funny,” explains Harvard neuroscientist Marisa Silveri, director of McLean Hospital’s Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health. It also takes you longer to start to slur your words and feel sleepy, she says.
This explains why so many teens keep on drinking until the alcohol affects the nerves that control crucial bodily functions—dulling the gag reflex (which can cause you to choke on your own vomit), slowing breathing, and even stopping the heart.
Eight years after Shelby’s death, Debbie Allen’s brain still whirs with “what-ifs.” What if she hadn’t let Shelby spend the night out? What if she had called to check in? But what’s hardest for her to bear is that her daughter could have been saved if only one of her friends had known what to do.
“Earlier that day, Shelby and I were lying in my bed and talking about college. I was saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to have to let you go soon.’ Then, bam. She was dead,” Debbie says. “It still hurts.”
After Shelby’s death, Debbie set up a nonprofit foundation called Shelby’s Rules to spread the word about the dangers of alcohol poisoning. She also supports “Good Samaritan” laws that protect teens from being prosecuted for underage drinking if they are the first to call 911 for help. All except 15 U.S. states now have some form of this law in place, according to the Medical Amnesty Initiative, a group that lobbies for such laws.
On the night Shelby died, her friend Alyssa also passed out from drinking. In an essay published on the Shelby’s Rules website, Alyssa says she hadn’t heard of alcohol poisoning before that fateful night. “I wish I would have known what I know now, alcohol can kill you,” wrote Alyssa, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
“I always thought you got sick, maybe passed out, you would wake up the next morning with a nasty hangover,” she wrote. “If only I knew. If only I knew my Shelb was in trouble. If only that night I would [have] called for help, I could have saved her life.”
DANGEROUS DRINKS IN DISGUISE
The sweet taste. The clever packaging. Are alcopop-makers trying to trick teens into downing too much alcohol?
At first glance they look just like energy drinks, with bright packaging and cool names. But alcopops are actually dangerous beverages that can pack more alcohol per serving than beer or wine. “These drinks are engineered, packaged, and marketed to hook underage drinkers,” says Michael Scippa, a spokesman for the nonprofit Alcohol Justice. “Because they don’t taste, smell, or look like alcohol, they appeal to people who have never had [an alcoholic] drink in their life.”
About half of underage drinkers in the U.S. said they had tried an alcopop in the past month, according to a 2015 study. While the alcohol industry says they're not targeting those under the legal drinking age, Mike’s Hard Lemonade came under fire last year for using the Marvel Comics superhero Deadpool in advertisements. The pops are also promoted on social media and during TV shows with high underage audiences, Scippa says.
These days, the drinks to especially watch out for are super-sized alcopops such as Four Loko and Joose, which are sold in single-serve bottles or cans with high alcohol concentrations. Drinking one is the equivalent of chugging four or five beers. “We call them binge-in-a-can,” Scippa says. A recent study even found that if you drink the super-sized version, you are six times more likely to go to the hospital with an alcohol-related injury compared with someone who chooses another type of alcoholic beverage.
*Spelling and punctuation in text messages have not been corrected.