A near-death experience proves sobering

Jed Ryan (W'99) drinks a non-alcoholic toast to dear old Penn.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Jed Ryan (W'99) almost didn't live to tell this story.

But thanks to quick thinking on the part of his roommates and friends, he survived, and now, four years after nearly dying from alcohol poisoning, he has hit the discussion circuit, sharing his message of moderation with high-schoolers and Penn undergraduates.

Ryan's near-death experience got him to confront an alcohol-abuse problem that had gotten out of hand.

Like many American teenagers, Ryan's first exposure to alcohol came in the form of illicit drinking during high school. But when he came to college, the forbidden thrill turned into a crutch.

"I began drinking heavily in the Pre-Freshman Program," he said. "It was a stress release - so many things were on my mind."

At first, he simply drank with friends, but by the time the semester began in earnest, it had ceased to be social - he was hooked on the hard stuff.

"I kept a bottle of Jack Daniel's in my room," he said, "or anything else I could get my hands on." He spent most of his first semester alternating between heavy drinking and varsity basketball practice.

And then, on a weekend night in January, he drank himself nearly to death.

It began with beer at a fraternity rush party. "Then I went to an off-campus party where there was a drinking game called Golf, where you go through rooms and drink shots in each room," he said.

After the first round of nine "holes," most of his comrades had called it quits, and the fraternity brothers accompanying Ryan were trying to get him to do so as well. But he pressed on, consuming a second round and then grabbing a bottle of Jack Daniel's and heading to the bathroom.

"I remember putting the bottle to my lips, drinking from it, and dropping it," he said.

The next thing he remembered was "waking up with a tube down my throat, in a hospital room on life support."

That was 48 hours later. Ryan had gone into an alcohol-induced coma, with a blood alcohol level of .35.

"I probably should have died," he said. Instead, his Quad roommates and advisors rushed him to the HUP emergency room and saved his life.

Ryan then spent the next semester putting it back together again. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous, and went back to the basketball court. "Coach [Fran] Dunphy did the best thing he could possibly do for me," he said, by insisting he continue showing up for practice rather than cutting him from the team.

The whole experience was sobering, to say the least. "I didn't drink at all for two years," he said. Even today, he says, "fruit punch makes me sick," as he associates it with the spiked concoctions often served at parties. When he drinks now, he does it only in social settings, and only has beer.

Now, four years later, Ryan has decided to share his experience with his fellow students, so that they can avoid his mistakes. In his talks with high-school and Penn students, Ryan does not preach abstinence. Instead, he advises students to understand the risks involved in alcohol consumption, know what the limits are, and avoid situations where they might lose control.

Ryan also worked with the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse, and he feels that its recommendations struck the proper balance between restriction and toleration. The group's principal goal, he said, was to remove the sense of entitlement Penn students feel about drinking. "By coming into Penn, kids now feel they have a right to drink. Our goal was to remove that right" - which does not exist until students turn 21.

Equally important, he said, was that the recommendations place responsibility for controlling alcohol use squarely in the hands of students. "Most kids feel that they shouldn't have to be controlled or corralled in an Ivy League school as opposed to a state school," he said. "But [administrators] will respect us only if we take responsibility and control into our own hands."

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Originally published on May 13, 1999