Grade 11 students of the Gulf Island Secondary School are attending a P.A.R.T.Y. this week. No, it is not what you think, this is a different party. This party is to Prevent Alcohol and Risk-related Trauma in Youth. It’s about raising awareness and learning through vivid and emotional experiences; from real people and their very real stories. In light of this, The Circle Education, who sponsors the program at GISS, sat down with Olivia Hayne (25), who lost her younger brother Alistair in a shooting accident in the fall of 2017.
Growing up on a small island can be idyllic, especially for young kids. The downside is that small communities lack entertainment that bigger cities have plenty: a shopping mall, cinemas, bowling halls, all places where youth can harmlessly hang out with their friends. On a small island, you have to entertain yourself and that can lead to a culture where parties sometimes turn into events with (lots of) alcohol involved.
Alcohol and teenage brains, it is for a number of reasons, not a great combination. Olivia Hayne is someone who knows that firsthand. She lost her brother Alistair due to a tragic accident in the fall of 2017 while hanging out with friends. She lived and saw the devastating grief his death caused her and her family, his wide circle of friends, students at GISS, and the community.
By sharing her story, she wants to raise awareness around the party culture on Salt Spring Island and encourage parents to have frank conversations with their kids about the risks of alcohol. “I think it is important not to fear youth out of having these challenging conversations. We must remain open to their curiosities and questions without making them feel like they are “bad” or that they feel like they need to experiment in the dark without being able to ask the much-needed questions.”
Alistair (16) was Olivia’s younger brother by four years. When she was young, she treated him like her favourite toy doll, dragging him around on one arm and giving him endless makeovers. They went through different phases together, but when they both grew older, the time they were annoyed by each other like siblings often are, passed. “In our teenage years, when we were both in high school, the gap between us started to merge. We were into the same things and our circle of friends started to mix.”
Olivia describes Alistair as a firecracker. “He was a bit of a hopper, he had different friend groups and managed to navigate them all at once. We were quite different. I am steady and like routines. Alistair was the opposite. He was always seeking adventure, had a lot of energy and never slowed down. He lived fast, like he knew he didn’t have much time.”
The accident that took Alistair’s life, happened at a friend’s house. “He was involved in an accidental, non-malicious accident with a firearm, in a small gathering with friends. Although I am unable to divulge too many details, my understanding is that his friends had been having fun shooting cans in the backyard and were just about to put the gun away when it accidentally discharged. It was an unfortunate combination of alcohol, a lack of consequential thinking and bad timing that led to this catastrophic situation; a recipe for disaster.”
Alistair was medivaced off the island to Children’s Hospital in Victoria in the middle of the night. Olivia and her parents were notified by the police in the early morning. The family had been told that Alistair was shot, but other than that, they had no information. “When we pulled out of Fulford harbour the sun came up. I was in a fragile state of mind, but it was the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen. I remember it vividly. I also remember that I was on the phone with a friend to tell her what happened, telling her that I didn’t think we would come home with Alistair. I just had a sense.”
Once in the hospital, she knew she was right. “Alistair was still warm but kept alive by machines. His body was there, but his spirit was gone. The doctors were very emphatic in relaying the message, but they almost immediately told us what the outcome would be. I worried that being on a small island, where you have to wait a while for an ambulance and a helicopter, would have had a negative effect. I played all the scenarios in my head, but they were very clear; even if it had happened on the doorstep of the hospital, there was no way that he could have survived this.”
Although Olivia and her parents never had a conversation about organ donation, they knew immediately that it was the right thing to do when the doctors brought it up. “He was a minor, so we could make the decision. In the end, Alistair donated his liver, two kidneys, his lungs and heart, to five different individuals and changed their lives for the better. At that moment it felt that that was what we needed to do. In hindsight, so many amazing things came out of it. I actually don’t know where my family and I would have been, in terms of our grieving, if we had decided otherwise.”
In the days that followed, the doctors ran rigorous tests to make sure that his organs were of enough quality to transplant. In those days his friends came to the hospital to say goodbye. “There were only two people at a time allowed in his room, but the staff was incredible. Already that first day, friends showed up and on his last day of him being on life support, they just opened the doors and so many kids gathered in his room. It was important for them to be able to say goodbye to him.”
Almost five years later, Olivia is used to speaking publicly about her brother and what happened to him, as an ambassador for BC Transplant. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes to talk about what happened”, she says. “I always feel a bit emotionally heavy when I do, but I think it is important to talk about organ donation, as well as talking about kids, alcohol and risk-taking. Young people often think that they are untouchable. And most of the time you can get away scathe free. Until one time you are not and that can be catastrophic. I would like to say to young kids, that you should not fear to stand up to friends if you think something is not safe. I hope they have the ability to recognize when something is not right. If someone has been drinking all night, would it be wise to get into a car with them? You have to be able to make that decision for yourself and recognize the risks involved. Especially when you live on a small island where busses don’t run late and cabs are not lined up to take you home.”
For Olivia, the passing of her brother changed her life forever. “It flipped everything completely upside down. How hard I try, I will never be the same person I was before. What was really hard for me, was watching my parents and his friends grieve. This one incident caused so much pain and grief for everybody involved, including the boy who was holding the gun. This has completely altered his life as well. One decision in one small moment can affect your entire course of life.”
She is sad about what happened to her brother, but she is not resentful. “I would do anything if I could just bring him back, but I can’t change what happened. I accepted it and try to live my life for both of us. I now carry some of his life voraciousness and carefreeness. He was very authentic, super nonjudgmental and he really didn’t care what people thought of him. I try to embody that a little bit. I move forward and try to live my life to its fullest. I would be doing a disservice to him if I didn’t continue my life to its full potential.”