Heading to Des Moines a couple of years ago for a seminar on drunk driving among teenagers, Judi Nelson, R.N., was feeling rushed and not particularly enthusiastic. Neither she nor her boss, who'd signed her up for this two-day training, knew what to expect.

A busy emergency department nurse at Cass County Memorial Hospital, Nelson hadn't had time to look up the program called "Every 15 Minutes" on the Internet. She couldn't figure out how giving some pointers about how to talk to high school classes could possibly eat up so much time. Nelson ended up being blown away by her experience.

Every 15 Minutes takes its name from the frequency with which American teenagers die in alcohol-related vehicular accidents. It uses vivid re-enactments to drive home the dangers of drinking and driving. Nelson returned to Cass County ready to take on a project with all the intricate planning and coordination of a Broadway show, involving costumes, props and audience participation.

"Working in the emergency room, I see people hurt and killed as a result of this," Nelson says. "It's not just the physical damage, but what it does to families. More than anything, I just felt that if this doesn't work, I don't know what will — but it will work with at least some of them."

For her efforts, Nelson received a Hospital Hero award from the Iowa Hospital Association last year. "Judi really went above and beyond for this," says Linda Hemminger, Nelson's supervisor and the hospital's assistant administrator of clinical services. "It takes weeks and weeks of planning. We support her all the way through it, but she provides the fire in setting it up."

Making Every 15 Minutes happen at the local high school meant hitting up the whole community for help, from law enforcement and school administrators to funeral homes, florists, parents and teens themselves.

It's a jam-packed, two-day affair. The high drama begins with a cop, a minister and the Grim Reaper taking one student out of the classroom every 15 minutes and reading his or her "obituary," to the remaining classmates.

The first day includes a mock collision. Police and firefighting vehicles arrive on the scene with sirens blaring, and a medical helicopter lands in the parking lot. Teenagers are transported to the hospital ED to watch clinicians unsuccessfully administer CPR on the "victim," who is then zipped up in a body bag and taken to the morgue. Next, they go to the police department to watch officers book the drunk driver, who is portrayed by a fellow student. At the courthouse, they watch the drunk driver being fingerprinted, shackled, tried and sentenced.

"It's a three-ring circus," Nelson says. "It has to be choreographed. We want it to look pretty real but, on the other hand, we need to keep it moving and make sure that one thing is not happening when the other is."

There are so many volunteers that Nelson organizes them into 16 teams. "They each take care of small parts so nobody is overwhelmed," she says. "Then we web it all together. It is amazing how well it works."

Inevitably, glitches occur. Last time, the helicopter was delayed by a real emergency, so Nelson had to shuffle things around. "I since have bought one of those ear things so I can tell one of the officers or firemen, 'Life Flight is 15 minutes late … we're going to move on to having the coroner come in.' "

That evening, students and parents gather for an overnight retreat that includes speakers and activities like driving games with goggles that simulate alcohol-impaired vision.

The next day, everyone gathers in the gym for a mock funeral, complete with caskets and flowers. "I know people think the accident is the climax of the program because it's gory and fast-action, but the memorial service is really what brings it all home," Nelson says.

When parents at the service read letters to their teens about how their child's "death" has affected them, everyone chokes up. "When you see two young boys with their arms around each other and tears coming down their faces — in front of the whole school — you've hit home somewhere," Nelson says.