So many drunk University of South Carolina students are being transported to the emergency room during home football games that stretchers line the hallways of Palmetto Health Baptist, emergency services are strained and drunken antics slow nurses who are trying to tend to the truly sick.
“They try to run away, fight people, pee in the corner,” said a nurse at Palmetto Health Baptist. “It’s been that way the whole time I’ve worked there.”
“We do get violent USC students,” another nurse at Palmetto Health Baptist said. “It just takes away from other patients.”
For this story, The State interviewed four nurses and one Richland County Emergency Medical Technician under the condition their names not be used.
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In the shadow of Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday, hundreds of college age women lined a wood fence with a “Female Entrance Only” gate. Behind the fence, thousands reveled prior to the Gamecock football team’s face off against Tennessee.
Two women hugged each other and stumbled around, spilling a red colored beverage from a red cup. A bottle of whiskey was on the ground a few feet from them. Boots, high heels and sandals trampled other solo cups, abandoned beer cans and emptied six pack holders.
Both Palmetto Health Baptist and Richland County EMS acknowledged the number of students requiring medical treatment on game day is a strain on resources.
“There has been a pattern where intoxicated individuals are brought to the emergency departments at Palmetto Health hospitals before, during and after large community events where alcohol is consumed,” Palmetto Health spokeswoman Tammie Epps wrote in a statement. “Just like any large influx of patients, this places a strain on the emergency department, especially since many of these patients may not require medical treatment.”
Epps declined to say how many students are typically treated at the hospital during and after USC home games.
Gamecock football games are just one of those events. The hospital also sees a spike in drunk USC students during Halloween, the first week of school and some holidays, several nurses told The State.
“Most of them are 18, 19 years old,” another nurse said. “One of them wasn’t even 18 years old.”
Nurses said they distinguish students from other patients through a few ways: resident mentors will follow them to the hospital to drop off a cab voucher for students, some have student IDs (or fake IDs), and during game day, students often wear Gamecocks apparel or paint their faces.
“A lot of them just say they go to USC,” another nurse said.
Last year, 161 USC students were transported to the hospital for alcohol or drug-related reasons, which is about five per week, according to Dean of Students Mark Shook. This number is only a partial count, as USC isn’t necessarily notified when a student is transported to the hospital from an off-campus location.
Between Oct. 2 and Oct 16, USC’s police department cited 11 people for underage drinking, and in every case emergency medical services were called, according to police records. One of those students was taken to jail after resisting EMS treatment, but the rest were taken to the hospital, records show.
The number of students who are transported to the hospital is almost certainly higher than this. During a recent USC home game, at least 15 students were were treated at Palmetto Baptist — the most common hospital for intoxicated USC students to be transported — for excessive drinking, according to two sources who were inside the emergency room that day.
Since 2007, students are more likely to be transported to the hospital for binge drinking in September, October and November than any other time of the year, according to USC data.
“It may have something to do with the USC football mentality,” said a Richland County EMT who often transports drunk students from football games or the Five Points neighborhood. “If drinking were a national sport, USC would probably be number one.”
Once drunk students are at the hospital, the rowdiness follows.
One example: On St. Patrick’s day, a 23-year old USC student was flailing around and allegedly “bit the tar out of” one of the nurses, before she was put in restraints, arrested and taken to jail, according to a summary police report and witnesses who spoke to The State. She was charged with third-degree assault and battery and released on a $1,087 bond. The case is ongoing.
“Spitting, kicking, the whole nine yards is pretty common,” when treating drunk USC students, the EMT said.
One nurse said about half of the drunk students who come into the hospital cause problems.
But the 23-year-old student, like many other intoxicated students who are taken to the hospital, wasn’t drunk enough to require medical attention, one of the nurses who witnessed the alleged assault said.
“If someone is able to talk and answer questions, they probably don’t need to go to the hospital,” a nurse said.
The EMT agreed, saying, “There’s been more than one occasion where we’ve taken USC students to the hospital...but they didn’t need to be there.”
Richland County EMS acknowledged the high volume of drunk patients, especially during game day, is a strain.
“While a USC home game requires additional resources to handle the number of people that flood into the area in and around the stadium during the day of the game, it does not affect the quality of care a patient receives when being treated by an EMS unit,” Richland County spokeswoman Beverly Harris wrote in a statement. “But certainly, a game will require additional resources. Essentially, the population in the area around the stadium becomes equivalent to the size of a city for up to six or eight hours.”
Once EMTs have responded to a call, even if it’s for something relatively minor like a drunk student, they can’t leave that scene to go treat a more serious injury, the EMT said.
Nurses and the EMT voiced frustration over an alleged police practice they say further overloads emergency rooms. Officers from USC’s police department and the Columbia Police Department catch underage students drinking and give them the option to either go to the hospital or to jail, according to four nurses and an EMT.
Stensland said it is not USC police policy to do that and Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said police do not do that.
“The result depends on the totality of each individual’s circumstance and not based on an option given to the person,” Timmons said in an email.
The EMT, however, said he has heard police say it.
“They say it in front of us all the time,” the EMT said. “It saves them time, saves them on paperwork, if we take them to the hospital.”
Regardless of how drunk students arrive, the hospital can’t ignore them. Federal law requires emergency rooms to treat anyone who comes to an emergency room.
For students who do need to be in the emergency room, it’s common for them to come in with a blood-alcohol level of .20 or .30, a nurse said. In South Carolina, drivers with a blood-alcohol level of .08 are considered drunk.
“We get kids we have to intubate — we have to breathe for them because they drank so much or got into some drugs,” a nurse said.
While records show some underage students transported to the hospital for excessive drinking or drug use resulted in a citation, others did not. However, that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook. When students are caught drinking underage or the university knows they were taken to the hospital for excessive drinking, they are referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity.
“48 hours after being transported to the hospital, you’re in the conduct office,” said Anna Edwards, USC’s associate vice president for student life.
Students referred to the conduct office for underage drinking can be given a $250 fine, their parents may be called, and they may be required to take an alcohol education class. But punishment is not the main goal. Rather, the university screens students on whether they’re at risk for continued binge drinking and then sets them up with “motivational interviews” with counselors who help them set goals for behavioral change.
“We find for a lot of students who were transported, this was the first time they drank,” said Shook, the dean of students. “The university approaches these as educational opportunities.”
The program has seen a success, according to statistics provided by Shook.
▪ 70 percent of participants said they used less marijuana during the previous month;
▪ 46 percent said they had reduced the number of times they consumed eight or more drinks on a single occasion;
▪ 50 percent said they had abstained from alcohol or marijuana in the last 30 days;
▪ 35 percent of participants said they had reduced the number times they took prescription drugs while drinking.
USC will also continue its efforts to contest liquor licenses for some Five Points bars it sees as problematic. A recent USC study found hospitalized USC students were more likely to have had their last drink at Five Points than anywhere else.
“The university cannot do the work we do... in a vacuum. Our work will continue in the entertainment districts,” Edwards said. “There is just a different message that’s shared there.”