EASTON – The three teens had already planned their own funerals, picked out caskets and written in detail about life as a paraplegic when they were told to snap on rubber gloves because they were going to clean up a corpse on a recent Friday night.
They had to write their names on toe-tags and tie them on to the “body” — actually a dummy made up to look like the victim of a drunken motorcycle accident — then they lifted it into a body bag.
As they zipped up the bag, a nurse at Easton Methodist Hospital stopped them and told them to think about what they were doing.
The dummy in that bag could just as easily be any one of them or their relatives, said nurse Janet Wheatley.
“When I first did it I got the hillie willies,” she said.
Giving teens the “hillie willies” is the point of the Reality Program, an alternative sentencing program for 14- to 21- year-olds convicted of drunken driving or drug offenses.
“The intent is to give them a very graphic description of what can happen to them,” said Chuck Porcari, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
In March, Talbot became the fourth Maryland county to participate in the program, joining Kent, Queen Anne’s and Worcester.
If a judge agrees, the teens pay the $100 cost of the program, which consists of four Friday night classes.
“It’s intended to mess up their weekends,” said Maryland State Trooper Terry Ober, coordinator of the Reality Program.
The first class is held in jail, the second in a hospital. Lawyers and judges speak to the youths in a courtroom on the third night and the students are back in the jail on the last night to reflect on the program and listen to victims.
In between, they have homework assignments that include planning their own funerals and spending a day listing all the activities they would need help with if they were paraplegics or quadriplegics.
“I thought we were just going to get lectures,” said Mike Wyman, 17, who went through the program last year in Kent County after being charged with possession of alcohol.
Wyman said the night in the hospital had the greatest impact on him. He said the program steered him in a new direction.
“I still go out to parties, but I don’t drink. I might have one beer, but I’ll have to wait six hours before I feel safe driving,” he said.
Students need an average combined score of 70 percent or better on their tests, homework and class participation to pass the program. Of the 81 students who went through the program between August 1996 and December 1997 in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, 69 successfully completed it.
The program was started in Tennessee in 1991 by the Rev. Jerry Geho in 1991, a chaplain for the Tennessee State Police. He started with just a few local teens, but the program has expanded and now a number of states have shown interest in it.
Geho selected Maryland in 1996 as the first state outside of Tennessee for the Reality Program.
“We didn’t start with that intention but it seems like it is going in that direction,” Geho said.
He selected Maryland after an interview with Ober, the state trooper, who told the teens in the first Talbot County program that the constant exposure to death on his job has hardened him.
“After picking up people I could put into a bushel basket, I quit riding my motorcycle,” Ober said.
The students — one in a Budweiser hat, another with a bottle-opener keychain — were joking and relaxed when they began their evening at the hospital. But the impact of stories like Ober’s and the nurses’ could be seen on their faces as the night wore on.
They shook their heads when paramedic Terry Satchell took them out to a running ambulance and showed how he would open an airway, by prying the patient’s mouth open with a metal tool that resembled a pair of pliers. He showed them the 3-inch needle that he might have to stick into a patient’s neck and other tools of the trade.
“That’s the last time I want you to see the inside of ambulance,” said Michael Hiner, who will be the lead guide for the Talbot County program.
In the morgue later, one boy looked away as state forensic investigator Ray Taylor told them about people throwing themselves on top of dead family members.
“It’s not like Humpty Dumpty, you can’t put them all back together again,” said one nurse, who cried as she talked about another nurse who was murdered.
“Everything that we do we carry with us,” Satchell said.
After zipping up the body bag, the students had to push the cart down the hall to the morgue and into the freezer, where they saw a leg on a rack.
“I didn’t like that leg thing,” Dale, one of the students, said later.
Mike, another student, sat alone with his head down during a break. He said he was most affected by the hospital staff’s stories, and believes the program will definitely have an impact on him.
Dale agreed. He described the night as “stunning” and said the ambulance scared him the most. “I think it will have a big effect on driving drunk and doing drugs,” he said.
The students turned in their homework — their funeral plans and care plans if they were disabled — and were then told to write their own obituaries for the next class. That included filling out a form naming the person to be notified if they died and saying how they should be told.
They also had to write a personal message to be given to the person of their choice, saying what they never got to say in life.
“This is kind of your last chance, your one and only chance,” Ober said.
As they left, they carried a keychain with the name of the hospital on it. And they carried a message from the hospital staff.
“Wherever you go, I want you to think about what you do,” Wheatley said.