Melinda Dickhause received the scare of her life about a week ago when she received a call that her son had hit his head after passing out at Foley Middle School.

Her 14-year-old son, Kyle, who will be a freshman at Madison Southern High School in August, banged his head on a bathroom sink and suffered a cut near his eye.

“When I got to the school, he looked horrible,” Melinda said. “His face was all white and pasty. Of course, he had fallen and had a knot on his head and two black eyes.”

“For two days, he just looked like a dead person,” the Berea mother said.

Melinda was shocked even more when she learned that the incident occurred when her son was playing a dangerous “choking game” that she soon discovered was popular among some Madison County children.

“(A student) got behind him and gave him a big bear hug,” she said. “He would hold his breath while they would hit his chest. I was scared to death. I had no idea that he even knew that such a thing existed. Just think, he could not have woken up. It’s a scary thought.”

“He said it’s kind of like you are going to sleep and you feel like you’re asleep for a long time,” Melinda said. “You dream about different things. When you wake up, you actually haven’t really been asleep that long. They’re only out for a minute, but he said it feels like you’ve been asleep all night. I guess it’s some kind of high that they get.”

After talking with her son, Melinda researched “the choking game” on the Internet and discovered it or variations of it have caused many injuries and deaths across the country.

Dangers

There have been at least 80 deaths and injuries from the game in 2007 and 11- to 14-year-olds make up 70 percent of the total reported deaths, according to the DB Foundation, a non-profit educational organization that teaches about the topic.

The DB Foundation was established after 11-year-old Dylan A. Blake of Florida died in October 2005 because of his participation in the “game,” which numerous nicknames include Five Minutes of Heaven, the Fainting Game, High Riser, Space Cowboy and Speed Dreaming.

The foundation’s Web site — thedbfoundation.com — lists several signs parents can look for that their children may be participating in the deadly activity, including frequent, often severe headaches, bloodshot eyes, bruising or red marks around the neck, changes in attitude and disorientation or grogginess after being alone.

The game is played in small groups or by a single child with the object being to apply pressure to restrict oxygen and/or blood flow to the brain creating a tingling or high sensation.

The potential dangers of the game include bruises, a concussion, seizures, brain death or damage, retinal hemorrhaging, a stroke or death.

As the assistant director of Kid’s Retreat, an after-school program and summer camp for children 6-12 years old in Berea, Melinda and director Penny Wilson talked to the children at the program about whether they knew about the game.

“They all admitted that they had heard of it and that a lot of their friends were doing it,” she said. “One of them did admit that he had done it. They weren’t aware the dangers, but now they know. Hopefully, they’ll spread the word.”

“I just hope everybody knows that this is happening here,” Melinda said. “Parents need to talk to their kids about it.”

About 75 percent of adolescents 9 to 16 years old have played or know of a peer who has played a variation of the game, according to the DB Foundation, but only 25 percent of parents are aware of the choking game.

GASP

Sharron Grant, who lives just north of Toronto, Canada, learned about the game the hard way when her 12-year-old son Jessie died in April 2005.

Jessie learned about it at a camp the summer before, Sharron said, and she discussed the dangers of it with him.

“I gave no thought to it after that,” she said. “I should have noticed his bloodshot eyes and the headaches that he was having. But, I didn’t notice that either.”

Then, one Saturday morning while Sharron ran an errand and her husband stayed at home, Jessie went from playing video games to heading to his room.

“(Jessie) went to his room and he used a computer cord,” Sharron said. “What they do is make a mechanism on the end of the belt, cords and ropes to release, but because the computer cord was rubberized, it didn’t release. It was stuck.”

After her son’s death, Sharron discovered many children in her hometown also were participating in the game.

She also tried unsuccessfully to research the topic, looking for answers to why her son left the world too soon.

“I found that there was absolutely nothing out there,” Sharron said. “Yet, this game has been played for generations. I saw it when I was a child and every other person you talk to has heard about it. But, the kids now are so versed in drugs and alcohol with programs such as DARE, that they’re looking something other than that. So, they go toward something like this thinking it’s totally innocent.”

She helped start Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play (GASP) — www.deadlygameschildrenplay.com — a national not-for-profit association founded to create awareness programs for the purpose of putting an end to asphyxiation activities played by children of all ages which leads to needless and tragic deaths.

“We’ve done surveys in schools in Texas and in Ontario for medical research that is being done for a medical journal,” Sharron said. “What we’ve gathered so far is that 20 percent of children in school are playing it.”

Sharron, who said that seven children in Kentucky have died because of the game since February 2006, believes a 45-minute safety lesson can be taught by a DARE officer to help decrease the number of children who participate in the deadly game.

“We have a DARE officer who has given more than 200 presentations in classrooms,” she said. “He finds that almost 75 percent of students put up their hands to say they know of the game. When he does the parents, about 25 percent of them know.”

No calls

Carlos Coyle, Madison County EMS supervisor, said that, to his knowledge, EMS personnel has not had to respond to any calls because of the choking game.

“Obviously, it’s very serious,” he said. “I don’t see how they determine it as a game. The unfortunate consequences are death. Even if there is not death, there could be brain damage where they remain alive, but be in a vegetative state. It’s extremely dangerous.”

Capt. Ken Clark of the Berea Police Department also is not aware of any calls related to the game that officers have responded to, but he realizes the potential dangers of the act.

“One thing that is scary with young people is that they don’t know enough about the body yet to know that you could crush a windpipe or something like that,” he said. “If they’re using someone else to choke them, they might not know when to let go and death could result. If you choke the blood flow off a brain long enough, the brain’s going to start dying.”

If a child does choke themselves until they pass out and they get hurt, they likely are not going to tell anybody that they inflicted it upon themselves, Clark said about why incidents of the game are not often reported or known about.

“Young people and adults a lot of times aren’t on the same wavelength,” he said. “The kids sometimes go out and try things that they definitely aren’t going to tell parents about because they know they wouldn’t approve of it.

“Unfortunately, what happens a lot is adults don’t know that there is a problem until a tragedy happens,” Clark said. “It’s not so much that anyone is ignoring it, it’s just it didn’t come to the level of awareness until the tragedy happens.”

Bryan Marshall can be reached at bmarshall@richmondregister.com or 624-6691.

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