Back to school season usually evokes the image of new supplies — coloured highlighters, clean lab coats and lined paper, all packed nicely into students’ backpacks. On university campuses, however, backpacks may play another role. It has become increasingly popular to use backpacks as a first aid tool when it comes to alcohol intoxication.
This trick, dubbed “Jansporting” after the popular backpack brand, consists of putting a backpack on an inebriated person in an effort to prevent them from rolling over and aspirating on their vomit. Picture this: after a few too many drinks at a party, a student heads off to bed, looking a little woozy. A friend decides that “jansporting” is called for. Together with another good Samaritan they grab a backpack, stuff it with a textbook, a hoodie from the floor, and a towel hanging on the door. After sliding one arm into the backpack strap, the student is rolled over and the other shoulder strap is slipped on. Looks just like the student is ready for class but lying down in the recovery position, with airway safely protected. Or is it?
Unfortunately, there have been some reports of students at colleges in the US dying after being jansported. Their stories made headlines, resulting in a number of recommendations against the act of jansporting.
As an emergency medical responder on McGill’s Student Emergency Response Team (MSERT), I was shocked to see so much negative publicity on what I thought was a neat first aid trick. Not to mention, one that we learn in our training and use in our service. So, I had to read further.
It turns out that in the deadly cases, students were vomiting from alcohol poisoning. The articles quoted doctors who stressed the importance of seeking proper medical attention when it comes to severe intoxication. Since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it slows brain function, abates breathing, and lowers bodily control. Once someone’s level of consciousness and breathing are affected by an alcohol overdose, death can come quickly.
The key difference between life and death is the state of the patient. Dr. Ralph Riviello, vice chair of clinical operations at Drexel University's Department of Emergency explains, “the backpack theoretically can prevent someone from rolling onto their back, […] and the degree of intoxication and responsiveness are the biggest determinants of aspiration.” The degree of intoxication is the main determinant for deciding on whether jansporting is an appropriate approach or if medical assistance is called for.
When it comes to MSERT, we do a full assessment of a patient’s vital signs: heart rate, respiration rate, pupillary assessment, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, skin quality, temperature, and even blood glucose levels. This assessment, combined with our evaluation of the patient’s level of consciousness determines if we, as students, can provide the necessary care or emergency medical services should be contacted. If the drunk person is talking to us and breathing normally, it’s safe to say that comfort and jansporting can be the way to go. Anything more serious than that, and it’s likely safer to call 911. Just remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry.