BETHEL, Alaska — Editor's Note: Video scenes of teenagers drinking alcohol are dramatizations. No alcohol was actually consumed. The teens volunteered their efforts to help promote awareness about underage drinking.
When it comes to alcohol, Bethel is a community on a see-saw. Last October, voters decided to go wet. Tuesday they weighed in yet again on a measure to ban bars and liquor stores.
The Rural Alaska community has a painful relationship with alcohol. Teen suicides are often attributed to alcohol and children as young as 10 are getting drunk.
"This night is pretty typical," Dr. Matt Greenberg, the Bethel emergency room director, said.
The night isn't so typical compared to most hospitals; drunks are brought here first to be checked out before going to jail.
"From what I hear, we've been seeing intoxicated individuals coming in all day long. Sounds like it's going to be a busy night," he said.
It's a night where the staff juggles sick babies and young people also crying out for help.
When it comes to injuries, suicide attempts rank as the No. 2 reason for hospitalization in Bethel, due in large part to underage drinkers.
"So you didn't try choking yourself, you didn't try punching yourself?" Greenberg asked a 17-year-old boy.
"No. I don't do that," the boy answered.
"Did you threaten to go over to your girlfriend's house with a gun?" Greenberg asked.
Many that show up in the emergency room have had more than a few drinks -- sometimes a bottle or two of whiskey in a day, often to numb the pain.
"I can't accept that my husband's gone. It's hard for me to see it," said one female patient, whose husband drowned.
"One tragedy begets many other smaller visits. Then sometimes one tragedy will lead to another. You'll get one suicide and then you'll get another suicide. And unfortunately, a lot of it is fueled by alcohol," Greenberg said.
"Too much drama in my life," said 19-year-old Keane Guest. "I grew up seeing alcohol in the family."
That alcohol has pulled family members into the grave. Keane struggles too.
"I was walking around. I was starting to think about alcohol and wanting to drink that night," Guest said.
Drink he did, until he was spotted stumbling by the roadside.
"They saw me crying. They heard me scream, 'I want to die.'"
"I was serious about what I said. I almost could have done it," Guest said.
"I think one of the upsetting things about alcohol and suicide is the number of kids that we see who have tried suicide, and worse, the number of people that have succeeded in suicide," Greenberg said.
"Eighty percent, maybe 90 percent have occurred while drinking. It's almost assumed; it's that frequent, that suicide in this area is related to alcohol," Greenberg said.
Guest had his first drink when he was 13, after friends pressured him to share a bottle.
"'Keane, you should try some, it's really good. Try it. Just take it really fast. Just drink it down fast. Gulp it down.' I said, 'OK Sure. Why not?'" he recalled.
Now he wishes he had said no.
"You know, just dump it down and say, 'You guys are dumb. Don't waste your life over this. This is a life-killing bottle here.'" he said.
Guest got a second chance thanks to police who brought him to emergency room that night he threatened to kill himself.
When the darkness lifted, he saw the world again through sober eyes.
"My hope is to keep fighting alcohol with my family," he said.
It won't be easy. His isn't the only family to struggle with alcohol, and many times it's passed through the generations.
In many communities across Alaska childhood has been tainted by alcohol as early as grade school.
The 2009 Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey, taken statewide in high schools, showed that 16.9 percent of students who took part in the survey had their first drink of alcohol, other than a few sips, before age 13.
"If you look at those particular surveys, I think the kids are being pretty honest," said Denise Morris with the Alaska Native Justice Center.
"It's absolutely deadly," she said.
"It's sad when you see someone that's 10 and drunk. It makes you wonder why," Greenberg said.
They don't have time to wonder in the Bethel hospital emergency room.
Mostly they have to react, and react quickly.
"I had a young man who was found passed out on the boardwalk. His friends were pulling him home. He was 11 years old; it was in the middle of winter. He came in and his body temperature was something on the order of 90, 92 degrees, which is too cold." Greenberg said.
Police found that child in time and brought him to the hospital.
That was not the case several years ago when a Bethel teenager was found face down in a slough dead from hypothermia.
Randy Beaver was only 14, yet police found alcohol in his body.
"They're getting it from somewhere. You know a 10-year-old can't go ahead and buy alcohol on their own. They have to get it from somebody. Someone is enabling them to get intoxicated," Greenberg said.
In communities where alcohol is illegal or restricted, there are always bootleggers out for a buck.
Kids sometimes pool together their babysitting and Christmas money to make a buy.
Sometimes adults offer kids alcohol. That's what happened to 18-year-old Samantha.
Her best friend's parents offered her alcohol at a party and after she got drunk a relative assaulted her.
"I don't like not having control of my body. What I do and don't do. And like, having someone do that when you're drinking and everything, it feels horrible. You'll be scared to tell somebody that it happened," Samantha said.
"I have teenagers coming in and telling me, "I'm not sure, but I passed out after drinking last night and I think I may have had sex, but I don't know.' That's another tragedy," Greenberg said.
Then it's time to contact the parents.
"To have to make that call and tell a parent that their teenage daughter is drunk in the ER, so drunk that she ripped off all her clothes and was running around naked when it's 20 degrees out. Or so drunk that she's peed herself and vomited all over herself, so, 'Could you bring some extra clothes?'" Greenberg said.
Sometimes, he says, it's hard to find a teen's parent.
"The one that makes me the saddest are the ones when I call and get a drunk parent," Greenberg said, "and they can't come and pick up their kid because they themselves are drunk."
There is some hopeful news about teen drinking. The risk survey of Alaska high school students is conducted every two years and last year's numbers on teen drinking edged down from 2007.
This series is a collaboration with the Alaska State Troopers to raise awareness about teen drinking. To get a DVD copy of "Choices," a documentary on the dangers of teen drinking in Alaska, contact Capt. Steve Arlow with the Alaska State Troopers at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Rhonda McBride at email@example.com