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Paramedics and other first repsonse deliver a dose of reality to P.A.R.T.Y. teens by sharing tales from the front lines.

Doug Nicholson. Not to be printed, broadcast or transmitted without the permission of MediaSource or its representatives

How do you get invincible teens who don,t bat an eye at blood and guts to recognize the potential consequences of their risky behaviour?

You throw them a P.A.R.T.Y.

And for some teens, the effects of Sunnybrook P.A.R.T.Y. show: their legs weaken, they go flush and they pass out.

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But it's not your typical teenage party. This P.A.R.T.Y. – Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth – uses a unique blend of engaging speakers including injury survivors, emergency response workers and health-care professionals, plus visits to Sunnybrook's trauma room and Critical Care Unit, to help teens recognize their injury risks and make smart decisions to reduce them.

Of course, making kids faint isn't the point. But if their physical reactions are any indication, Sunnybrook's P.A.R.T.Y. Program is getting through to them.

"It is a very powerful way to communicate the importance of making informed choices," says Joanne Banfield, manager of trauma injury prevention within the Sunnybrook RBC First Office for Injury Prevention, which encompasses P.A.R.T.Y.

Indeed, over the two-plus decades the program has been running, Banfield says many students have said their visit to Sunnybrook was their most memorable high school trip. "P.A.R.T.Y. stands out. It's one they never forget," she says.

Irene Petrou, a teacher at Milliken Mills High School in Markham and a past P.A.R.T.Y. attendee herself, is introducing her students to the program.

"It's crucial that we expose them to the realities of everyday living," she says. "Students tend to have an immortality complex and believe nothing 'bad' will happen to them, so this is a hands-on experience."

The program is a reality check for youth, adds Toronto Police Service constable Keith Ingram, who has been a P.A.R.T.Y. speaker for more than two years. Vehicles are the most common sites for teenager deaths in the developed world, he says, adding that the most risky driving behaviours include speeding, impaired driving, cellphones and other distractions, and not wearing seatbelts.

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P.A.R.T.Y. veteran speaker Geoff MacBride, a Toronto paramedic, discusses different injuries and their consequences with students. "It's really a no-holds-barred approach. There is some pretty graphic stuff," he says, noting that he gets students to lie down on a backboard and places a neck brace on them for added effect.

From its humble beginnings at Sunnybrook in 1986, P.A.R.T.Y. has spread across Canada and has gone international, with programs set up in the United States, Japan, Brazil, Australia and Germany. Sunnybrook remains the program's national headquarters.

Some of these international seeds, Banfield notes, were planted after doctors from afar encountered the program first-hand while working at Sunnybrook's Tory Regional Trauma Centre. Impressed with what they saw, the doctors have taken the initiative to bring P.A.R.T.Y. back to their home countries. Banfield's speaking engagements at international conferences have also been important to this global expansion.

So what is a typical day for P.A.R.T.Y. participants? Through the eyes of paramedics, police, nurses, physicians, social workers, coroners and injury survivors – some in acute care, others in rehab or back home – they learn the details of what really happens during, immediately following and in the years after an injury.

The team also helps students understand the effects alcohol and drugs have on decision making, judgment, concentration and coordination, and the terrible consequences that can result. The kids gain perspective on exactly how incidents impact the body, especially the brain and spine. The program concludes by challenging teens to individually and collectively commit to promoting behaviours that minimize the risk of injury.

Sunnybrook created the program both at the request of teens and with their input, Banfield emphasizes. "It was important to ensure the messaging was directed with teens in mind." It was equally necessary that a realistic setting – what she calls "vivid clinical reality" – was at the heart of P.A.R.T.Y. "We don't sugar-coat things," she says.

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"I wish that when I was a kid I had this," says 61-year-old Elton Horner, a quadriplegic who has been sharing his story with P.A.R.T.Y. teens since 1988.

The program works because of its authenticity, he says. "Number one: getting the message right from the horse's mouth. That's a lot different than having your teacher tell you not to do this and not to do that."

Elton's life changed dramatically in 1983 while driving impaired. He failed to negotiate a turn and, not wearing his seatbelt, was launched from his vehicle. A lengthy hospital stay, a year's worth of rehabilitation and under-employment followed.

Elton speaks to P.A.R.T.Y. students at Sunnybrook twice a week during the school year, telling them how his risky behaviour changed his life and guiding them through the hospital's rehabilitation area. The students are inquisitive about his injury's effect on others, he says. "They want to know how my friends took it and how my family is."

Elton's story and those of the other injury survivors definitely touches the youthful audience.

"I can see in the kids' faces that they are aware of what's going on," he says. Elton has also received feedback from students and their parents that highlights changed behaviour among participants. "I have driven with a drunk driver. And after what I've seen today I'm definitely not doing that again," is one such comment.

Sarah Ginn, an injury survivor entering her second year as a P.A.R.T.Y. speaker, also elicits a reaction from students. "They grab my hand and say, 'It's amazing to meet you,'" she says of youth who approach her after she speaks.

Sarah's story is at the same time deeply tragic and incredibly inspiring. Now 30, Sarah was a friendly and vibrant young woman looking to the future when the car she was a passenger in was struck by an oncoming vehicle in January of 2003.

Although she was wearing her seatbelt, it was not working properly. Slack in the seatbelt caused it to wrap around the vehicle handle and unravel during the impact from the other car. Sarah went hurtling into the windshield, initially causing a bleed in her brain, a torn liver from the seatbelt and collapsed lungs. Sarah's sister, Lisa, was also in the car, and was transported to Sunnybrook with broken ribs, punctured lungs and a suspected fracture of her spine.

Rushed to Sunnybrook by air, Sarah laid in a coma for six weeks with little chance of survival. But she beat the odds and woke from the coma, and then underwent 16 surgeries, countless hours of speech and cognitive rehabilitation and ongoing physical therapy. Her long-term injuries include being legally blind, being unable to taste or smell, and continuing cognitive and memory losses.

But that's what happened – not what is happening now. Sarah recently graduated to become a registered holistic nutritionist and is excited to return to Sunnybrook as a P.A.R.T.Y. speaker. She says being able to offer guidance to youth and to give back to Sunnybrook is an "honour and a blessing."

Sarah's mom, Eveline, says that as much as students are shocked and saddened by what they hear, they also draw inspiration from the courageous battles waged by survivors. "Sarah has fought. It's been a long seven years," says Eveline, who along with her husband, David, speaks to participants about how tragedy affects parents.

The students are often much more appreciative of their parents after hearing the two speak, Eveline says. "You know you've touched them and you know you've reached them," David adds.

A recent study, published in the March issue of the Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care, indicates that all of this messaging and vivid clinical reality is connecting with youth. The researchers found P.A.R.T.Y. participants are less likely than non-participants to suffer traumatic injuries.

"It validated that the work [behind P.A.R.T.Y.]and all the time and energy – and let me tell you, it was a lot of hard work – was in fact worth it," Banfield says of the study. It documents, in a scientific way, the anecdotal evidence that has been building for years: P.A.R.T.Y. participants are more likely to take a pause, reconsider and avoid risky behaviour.

The Sunnybrook researchers combed through data from a 10-year period, randomly matching 1,281 former P.A.R.T.Y. participants with an equal number of non-participants, all the while keeping four variables in mind (same age, gender, residential area and initial year in Ontario's driver's license database). There were fewer traumatic injuries in the P.A.R.T.Y. group – 43.3 per cent vs. 47.4 per cent. This means non-participants were at a 22 per cent greater risk of a traumatic event.

"These results show us that exposing teens to this kind of learning has tangible benefits and applicability in the real world," says Banfield. "It is very rewarding to release these findings during the 25th year of the program."

P.A.R.T.Y. benefits more than just its target audience. The speakers also get something out of it, Elton says. "It turned out to be really cathartic for me. I hadn't really talked much about what happened – just sort of kept it inside." But by opening up to students, Elton found he was willing to share more of his story.

David, who has witnessed his share of trauma as a police officer, also describes P.A.R.T.Y. as a bit of a healing mechanism. Informing youth about the consequences of risky behaviour "helps us get the pieces of our life back a little bit. It doesn't fix it, but it does help."

With well over 120 P.A.R.T.Y. Program sites in Canada and around the world, the program shows no signs of slowing. The intention, Banfield says, is to have P.A.R.T.Y. operating in every lead trauma hospital in the country within five years and to double the overall number of sites where it is delivered.

Banfield and her team are also looking to evolve the program's delivery model so that it can be presented outside of hospital settings in an effective way. "Not everybody can come to the hospital," she notes. "What else can we develop that is pretty close to what we have here, but doesn't take as many resources and allows us to cover off all the high school students?"

Certainly, a bright future is in store for P.A.R.T.Y., which can only mean a brighter future for program participants who will be less likely to take dangerous risks and suffer tragic consequences. 

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