A collegiate binge death, then a mother's crusade

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Mary Ciammetti started “Don’t Stall, Just Call” after son Christian died of alcohol poisoning.

Mary Ciammetti teared up in her Conshohocken living room as she showed the video of her youngest son. It's been a little more than a year since he died of alcohol poisoning, despite his Temple University roommates' frantic attempts to save him with CPR.

There was Christian Ciammetti having a bath in the kitchen sink at 16 months, then wearing a suit at First Communion. In his high school football uniform, with his girlfriend, at graduation, on skis, posing with a big fish he'd reeled in.

Then the music - Avicii's "Wake Me Up" - stopped, and the images played silently:

A refrigerator with empty liquor bottles and a red Solo cup. An unmade bed. A hospital room, with Christian tethered to a mesh of tubes and IVs.

And finally, Christian lying in a casket in a red flannel shirt, dead at 20.

He had been a junior, a young man with dyslexia who shined through his major, landscape architecture. On a walk through campus about a year before his death, Christian showed his parents a beautifully landscaped courtyard.

"Oh, Christian, is this what you're going to do?" Mary Ciammetti asked him. A smile spread across his face. "Nope," he told her. "Even better."

She couldn't bear the thought of his life ending so senselessly, so meaninglessly. Not when there was something she could do to bring awareness of the problem - and the help that's available.

In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and 28 other states, people can call to help an underage drinker without getting in trouble with the law. It's called medical amnesty.

Since Christian's death, his mother has dedicated her time to warning young people about alcohol poisoning and how to get help if they need it.

"No one, no one, should ever die of this again," Mary Ciammetti, 53, said. "Everyone needs to learn the symptoms of alcohol poisoning."

Mumbling. Stumbling. Passed out. Cool to the touch. Vomiting. All are signs, warns the CTC Wellness Foundation, the nonprofit Ciammetti started in her son's name. It preaches: "Don't Stall. Just Call."

Temple University has had its own medical amnesty policy since 2006. Last year, 90 students called, up from 47 the previous year - a positive sign, Temple officials said, because more students are seeking help.

In October, Ciammetti talked about binge drinking to more than 200 people at her church, St. Philip Neri in Lafayette Hill. Within 24 hours, three mothers asked her to come again when their kids would be home from college. In December, 500 showed.

She's spoken before Temple nursing and public health students, and visited the Kappa Delta Rho house at the University of Delaware. Later this month, she'll talk to seniors at her son's alma mater, La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor, and to students at St. Joseph's University.

Temple administrators have embraced her message, including Robert McNamara, chair of emergency medicine at Temple University Hospital, whose son was one of Christian's roommates.

"We are immensely grateful to her for holding a steady spotlight on this issue," said Stephanie Ives, dean of students.

Binge drinking is a serious problem on college campuses across the country, with about 40 percent of students reporting they have met the criteria in the prior two weeks. For men, that's five drinks in a sitting. For women, it's four drinks.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries.

Colleges are seeing more high-risk drinkers - and the students are drinking more heavily, mixing other substances and suffering more harmful consequences, Ives said.

Said McNamara: "Kids think they are immortal."

That January morning, it was McNamara who called the Ciammettis to tell them Christian was in trouble. The emergency medicine physician had gotten a call from his son. Christian wouldn't wake up. The roommates had called 911 and were trying CPR.

"Get to the hospital," McNamara told his longtime friend, Christian's father, Pat Ciammetti, 55.

In the coming days, the Ciammettis would learn what had happened. Christian started drinking, then went to a party. When he returned, he could barely stand or talk.

His roommates got him to bed and did "the watch," Mary Ciammetti said, placing him on his side, making sure he didn't vomit. They didn't realize his body temperature had dipped dangerously low. He went into cardiac arrest.

"They didn't know, and, by the way, it could have happened in my house, and I wouldn't have known, either," Ciammetti said. "What matters is educating people so it doesn't happen again."

His parents also learned it wasn't the first time he had binged. It had become a habit. He'd load up on five-hour energy drinks and pound hard liquor.

At home, their son was quiet, an outdoorsman who built a fire pit in the backyard and crafted a miniature ski chalet in ceramics class. He loved his landscape architecture classes at the Ambler campus. He took the shuttle daily from the main campus. Never missed.

Now, the doctor at the hospital was pulling the Ciammettis aside in the early hours of a Monday to tell them that Christian was going to die.

Until then, the Ciammettis, lifelong Catholics, felt they had a blessed life: four healthy children, a beautiful home on a hill, Pat's longtime auto body business in North Philadelphia, Mary's work as an account specialist for a collegiate clothing company, trips to Italy and Switzerland. They had just become grandparents to their oldest son's first child.

Christian remained on life support for six days before his death. "It's just like a big hole in your heart," said Pat Ciammetti.

Every time the 24th of the month comes - Christian died Jan. 24 - Mary Ciammetti said, she can barely function.

Their social life has changed. In deference to what happened, friends who used to pose for pictures with drinks now set the drinks aside first, as do the Ciammettis.

She shuns red Solo cups, which she associates with her son's drinking: "I'll never hold a red cup the rest of my life."

Others' lives have changed, too.

Julia Miller, 22, a Temple senior and Christian's former girlfriend, doesn't drink hard liquor anymore. And when she sees someone in trouble, she tries to help. A few weeks ago, she approached a young woman who was stumbling.

"It was very scary to think that could be someone I really cared about," said Miller, a neuroscience major from Jenkintown, who sits on the board of Ciammetti's nonprofit.

Yanna Y. Savkova, a senior from Allentown who works as a residence assistant, remembers a knock on her door in November. The student had seen one of Ciammetti's posters. Her roommate wasn't waking up after drinking too much.

"We have to call," the student told Savkova. And Savkova, who had seen Ciammetti speak, agreed.

Savkova, 21, is a nursing major who volunteers as a campus EMT. She's tended to students who binge drink. What she's seen leaves her "horrified."

"That's the most docile way to put it," she said. She has embraced Ciammetti's campaign. "We needed this for so long."

ssnyder@phillynews.com

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