The Choking Game
Levi Draher is clinically dead.
The 15-year-old's body is positioned with the knees on a stack of mattresses, the torso slumped forward with the neck pressed into a black nylon cord he had tied between two bed bunk posts. He's in an empty bedroom in his company barracks at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. The proud red MMA crest is emblazoned on his gold T-shirt. His shorts are red; his feet are bare.
A few yards away, through the open door to the bathroom connecting two bedrooms, Levi's roommate sits studying at a desk. The company's recent wave of low grades has put them on restriction and cost them tonight's Halloween party. If Levi had made any noise before the nylon sling clamped his carotid, his roommate wouldn't have been able to hear through his headphones.
Levi's mother, Carrie, is down the hall chatting with the drill instructor's wife. They're talking about next week's annual Marine Corps Ball. As a "company mom," Carrie is involved in the planning.
Carrie glances at a clock and sees it's nearly dinnertime. Time to grab Levi and head to the mess. Then they'll head into town for that pair of Nike Shox Levi's been begging for.
Carrie walks down the hall to Levi's room and sees her son's roommate through the open door. She knocks loud enough to snap him from his music.
"Where's Draher?" she asks.
The roommate turns to the bathroom, thinking Levi's in the shower. Hearing nothing, they walk through the bathroom and see the body. They rush forward, pull Levi from the sling and onto the floor. The roommate flies out the door.
It's Halloween; this is a joke, Carrie thinks.
"Stop it!" she tells her son. "It's not funny!"
Something's making her strong, because she grabs her only son by his cold blue arm and pulls his 160-pound body nearly upright. But his torso tumbles into her, followed a split second later by his head, which snaps forward and crashes into a desk, and the two crumple to the floor.
Carrie puts her ear to his chest, his lips. No heartbeat, no breath. She can't find a pulse. She draws what feels like the first breath she's taken since she saw the body and screams. With the next breath, she catches herself before the scream. She hears a word. Share. Without thinking, Carrie puts her mouth over Levi's and shares her air. Now the drill instructor's wife and the company kids rush into the room. One drops down and compresses Levi's chest. Levi makes a gurgling sound. When the medics arrive, Levi's seizing, his back arching off the ground. The medics try to intubate, but his jaw is welded shut, so they use the bag. It takes five adults to load his writhing body onto the backboard.
In the ambulance, Carrie is in the front seat, looking in the back. The tube connecting the breathing bag to Levi's mouth is clouded with blood. The medic at Levi's side sees Carrie's expression. He bit his tongue, the medic says.
While Carrie's at the hospital, waiting to hear from the doctors working on her boy, investigators are talking to the kids in Levi's company. What the hell is this, the investigators want to know. To the kids, it's obvious. Levi made himself pass out to get high. Some of the kids would do it to each other after taps, when they should be asleep. By the dim light of the bathroom sink or the glowing flames from a puddle of hand sanitizer they'd light on fire, they'd take machine-gun breaths and wait for the crushing bear hug from behind. Thing is, after they'd pass out, they'd get back up. That's how the choking game is played.
Their names and ages are listed on the Web site:
Brandon J. Myers, 12, Missouri
Elizabeth Pryor, 13, Georgia
Isaiah Mitchell, 9, Indiana
Casey Richards, 10, Ohio
These kids, and dozens more on the list, have killed themselves playing the choking game. Their carotid arteries have been squeezed to strangulation by the thumbs of friends. They have tied utility cords and scarves and ropes around their necks and to the tops of doors. They have bent over and hyperventilated to the point of hypocapnia, lowering the carbon dioxide in their blood. They have done this for a high that can be counted in seconds.
These names are on the Web site for GASP, Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play. It's a campaign launched by Sharron Grant of Ontario, Canada, whose 12-year-old son, Jesse, strangled himself with a computer cord while playing the choking game in 2005.
However, research is murky when it comes to how many kids die each year from playing the choking game. Grant's group has tallied 337 children's deaths worldwide since 1934. Those numbers also show a marked increase in U.S. deaths in the past few years. According to GASP, 30 kids died playing the game in 2004, 68 in 2005 and 81 in 2006. The group has recorded 18 deaths so far for 2007.
But Mark Lepore, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Pittsburgh's Chatham College, believes 1,800 people in the United States have died playing the game in the past ten years. The majority were children and teens. However, Lepore acknowledges that "it's really hard to make an accurate determination" as to exactly how many deaths can be attributed to the choking game. (Deaths attributed to the choking game are not to be confused with those attributed to autoerotic asphyxiation, in which masturbation and asphyxia are combined in the quest for a more powerful orgasm, and which typically involves older practitioners.)
The list of names on GASP's site grows every month, and Texas is not immune.
On March 7, 2007, Huntsville high school sophomore Blake Sandel died playing the game. His mother told The Huntsville Item that, on the day Blake died, he and his brother had plans to go to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Blake slipped into his bedroom to change clothes, and he never came out. His father found the body about 45 minutes later.
Besides Blake, the GASP site lists 14 deaths and one injury among Texas children playing the game. The average age is 13.
The Harris County Medical Examiner's Office originally ruled one of the cases a suicide, despite the protests of the family. That is another reason, researchers say, that true numbers are hard to find.
In that case, a 14-year-old Spring girl named Haley Kinney took one of the decorative scarves she liked to keep on her door and tied one end around her neck. She looped the other end around a hinge at the top of her bedroom door, kneeled on her beanbag and fell forward. As she asphyxiated, her mother, baby brother and twin brother Kirby went about their business upstairs.
When one of Haley's friends called, Kirby walked the phone downstairs to Haley's room. Coming down the steps, Kirby says, he saw the door creak partway open to reveal a single pale arm. He said she had a call, but there was no response. Once outside Haley's room, Kirby couldn't get the door to budge. He was up against the weight of his sister's dead body. He leaned into the door and then saw it again, the pale arm. Kirby screamed for his mom.
The way Kirby recalls it, the medics pronounced his sister dead on the scene.
"Ma'am," he remembers them telling his mom, "we need you to step away from her because she's dead."
Do not scream, Carrie Draher is telling herself. Do not lose your self-control, or they will take you away from him.
It's a mercifully quick trip to the hospital. In the trauma bay, the doctors let Carrie stand beside Levi for a few minutes. She holds his cold blue foot. But now it's time for them to take Levi, and a doctor leads her away. She knows where she's going. That room with the little couch and nice lighting where no one wants to go. She's going to a room where the only thing she can do is wait. In a moment, Heidi, the drill instructor's wife, is with her. Carrie can't sit still. She picks up the phone and calls family. There's been an accident. With each call, she feels more and more like she's planning a funeral.
The hospital chaplain appears at the door. She knows what that means. In the military, the only reason the chaplain appears is to administer the last rites.
"Is he dead?" Carrie asks. And when the chaplain says she just wanted to see if there's anything Carrie needs, she lets it out. She closes the door and screams.
Heidi grabs her. She tells Carrie not to block them out. The door opens and the chaplain enters. Heidi and the chaplain ask Carrie to pray. They lock hands at first, but then Carrie drops down, tucking her chest to her knees, laying her head on the floor. She's never felt more powerless. She knows she can't ask God to save Levi; that's not her place. But she still talks to God. She asks for peace and the ability to be strong for the family members who will soon be trickling through the hospital doors. And when she returns to her feet, she is bolstered with the most incredible sense of calm.
Finally stable after three hours of seizures, Levi is moved to pediatric ICU. Carrie is allowed to touch him. He's warmer than before, but still slightly blue. He's intubated and on life support. The doctor takes Carrie aside for a debriefing. Levi's lungs are badly damaged. His brain is swelling. His liver is failing. She tells Carrie that they can push all the oxygen in the world into Levi, but if his lungs can't feed his cells, there's nothing they can do except maintain a pulse. Carrie knows she's being prepped for brain death. She knows what's coming next, and she says, when the time comes, she and her husband will sign a do-not-resuscitate order.
Now her calm is tested by a wave of doubt. Had she done the right thing? Did she give Levi just enough breath to bring him back as a vegetable? Did she revive a brain-dead child?
The waiting stretches through the night, into day two, and on the morning of day three, while Carrie is sitting beside him, Levi's eyes open. Carrie calls for the doctors while a frightened Levi shoots up and reaches for the tube that's jammed down his throat. But Carrie tries to reassure him.
"There was an accident," Carrie says. "You're in a hospital. And if you just breathe with this machine that's helping you breathe, they'll take it out."
Levi lies back down, and the doctors remove the tube.
In a raspy whisper, Levi utters his first word since Carrie found him on the floor.
"Water," he says.
Of all the different names the choking game goes by -- space monkey, blackout, California dreaming -- perhaps the most appropriate is “suffocation roulette.”
That was the title of a 2003 report by Israeli doctors in Annals of Emergency Medicine. Their curious patient was a 12-year-old boy who had gone off to play with friends, only to return disoriented, two days in a row. The boy had told his father that he blacked out on both occasions, but he had no memory of the time immediately preceding the blackouts. The boy said he wasn't sniffing, smoking, drinking or shooting anything. He “denied physical abuse by his peers.” Stymied, the doctors ran a battery of tests. The boy finally fessed up when one doctor asked him point-blank if he knew anything about the choking game.
“We believe that this dangerous game should be brought to the attention of parents, physicians, educators and social service personnel,” the physicians wrote. “Recognition of this game as a possible cause of [passing out], together with prompt educative intervention, might prevent adolescent morbidity and mortality.”
Yet despite the efforts of organizations like GASP, it appears that kids are learning more about the game's fun than its danger. Critics are quick to point to MySpace and YouTube, where adolescent auteurs have recorded themselves playing the game solo or with friends. The videos star laughing, normal-looking kids, all waking up at the end, perfectly healthy. (YouTube's “code of conduct” states that users should not post “videos showing dangerous or illegal acts.” When asked if the choking game was a dangerous or illegal act, a spokesman for YouTube simply referred the Houston Press to the code of conduct.)
The folks at GASP would rather kids see the video of a 15-year-old Twin Cities boy named Ryan Tucker. That clip, on GASP's site, shows a kid who played the choking game and woke up with severe brain damage. Ryan now looks like he was born with cerebral palsy and spends his days in therapy, learning how to walk and trying to launch a ball into a brightly colored set of little plastic bowling pins.
In an article about the choking game, Julie Rosenbluth of the American Council for Drug Education wrote, “A child playing this game could lose consciousness within a minute and die in as little as 2–4 minutes, as the weight of their body further constricts blood and oxygen to the brain.”
According to Rosenbluth, most kids playing the game are between 9 and 14. “Many preteens and teens participate in this lethal game out of curiosity not rebellion, depression or anger,” she wrote. “The game may be played by kids who are not outwardly at-risk students who may do well in school and are close with their families. To many kids, the choking game seems like a harmless way to get a rush.”
This description would have applied to Haley Kinney, the popular 14-year-old girl the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office originally believed committed suicide in a nearly full house, leaving behind neither a note nor a history of depression or suicidal behavior. Haley's father, Gary Kinney, says he was unhappy with the initial police investigation and Medical Examiner's ruling. Seven months after he requested another investigation and examination, Haley's manner of death was changed to “undetermined.” Gary Kinney maintains that the ruling should be “accidental.”
Her brother says he and Haley learned of the choking game in sixth grade. It was the last week of school, during a “free day” where the students got to play outside on Strack Intermediate's field and gorge themselves on ice cream. One of the kids was showing the others how good it felt to hyperventilate and pass out. Kirby liked it immediately. He never knew how much Haley liked it. He never thought she played it after that week.
In seventh grade, Kirby saw the movie Life as a House, and watched as one of the characters tried to play the choking game by hanging himself from his closet clothes rack. To Kirby, it looked perfectly inviting. He would wait until the house was empty and then get the belt.
“I always seemed to land on my stomach, or something...and wake up,” he says.
Then, when it happened, when the medics were kneeling by Haley's body, Kirby ran upstairs and punched the walls. He threw chairs. The anger carried over into the classroom, and after the 29th time he was written up, Kirby transferred to Klein Annex, an alternative school. He needed to shake the stress, but he knew he could never play the choking game anymore. He tried marijuana for the first time and was surprised to find a familiar feeling. But his parents found out and put an end to that. And even Kirby wondered what he was doing. Haley abhorred drugs and would've been disappointed. He was going to have to get through this straight. But it would be hard for Kirby, knowing that this person who was always right there was gone.
“You're so used to her riding the bus with you every morning, and you're so used to y'all...racing back home,” he says. “And then you just don't have that anymore. You're walking home by yourself.”
After Haley died, Kirby says, he talked to her friends and found out she had been playing the game with another girl on several occasions. Space monkey, they called it. He had already known, but this news made the original suicide ruling even harder to bear. Kirby equates suicide with surrender, saying it is something his sister would never do. It's when talking about the original manner of death that Kirby slips into the present tense.
“Haley's not a failure, period,” he says. “She won't take that for an answer.”
On day five, Levi says, “I played the game.”
Investigators had been talking to him, trying to figure out what happened. Hazing? Attempted suicide? Autoerotic asphyxiation? Levi had been reluctant to talk. The choking game was a private thing, and he had only done it twice before on his own. Carrie doesn't know what to think; she's never heard of this before. So she does the research online and finds GASP. But she's not prepared for what she sees on the list of names. Boy, 15, Harlingen, 10/28/06. It's Levi. And she scrolls down, and down, and down, and tries to process all the names below his. And she looks back at her son's entry and sees something that sets it apart. An asterisk. On this list of dead, Levi is an exception. She feels she has to do something.
When she calls GASP, she says, “My name is Carrie Draher. My son is Boy, 15, Harlingen, 10/28/06.”
While Levi gathers his motor skills in therapy, Carrie reads everything she can about the choking game. Parents need to know. Kids need to be warned. They aren't listening. But maybe they'd listen to someone who actually died playing it. At first, Carrie and her husband are reluctant to parade Levi in front of the cameras like a freak. Months pass, and she talks with Levi. He says he's healthy enough to share his story with whoever will listen. Carrie and Levi now go to schools to help deliver a choking game awareness program. In March, the campaign landed Levi on the front page of The New York Times. From there, mother and son have gone on CNN, the Today show and Hannity, among others.
Levi loved the trip to New York, where he stayed in the Millennium Hotel. His pleasure was evident on the Today show, where he wore his MMA jacket and a big, goofy grin. The grin has been the subject of some discussion between mother and son. Levi is a happy kid, and he can't contort his face into a look of solemnity on cue, so whenever he's on camera, one might think his brain could still use some oxygen.
When the grin is brought up during an interview, he laughs and says, “I look blazed...don't I? Don't I?”
Levi does not reflect on the experience. He has no memory of it, so during an interview he'd rather discuss things that exist in the present, like his MySpace page or his favorite scenes from Borat. And as far as he's concerned, the few minutes of clinical death aren't enough to keep him from his dream of joining the Marines.
The Drahers have a long military background, and Levi had wanted to take on that tradition ever since he was five. He had researched military boarding schools in Texas until he found MMA, and he knew in an instant that's what he wanted. The Marines were the toughest. “First to fight,” he liked to say. The tuition is steep $25,000 a year but Levi's parents wanted to give him this chance.
Carrie says that MMA's administration was understanding, compassionate and willing to welcome Levi back after the accident. However, she wanted Levi to go to school in San Antonio until she's sure he's fully healed. She says two private schools would not accept Levi once administrators found out about his accident. So now Levi goes to a public school just up the road from his home. He hates it. He misses the military atmosphere.
He hasn't spoken with a recruiter yet, but is confident the Marines will gladly accept him because, he says, “I'm cool.” (The Press checked with the Marines and, according to a gunnery sergeant who runs a Marine recruiting substation in Webster, an accident like the one Levi suffered would not automatically disqualify him. Policy dictates that doctors would have to review his medical files to determine if there was any permanent damage.)
This afternoon, a gray-haired chauffeur in a black suit parks a black Lincoln Town Car outside the Drahers' apartment and knocks on the door. He is taking Carrie and Levi to a television studio downtown, where Geraldo Rivera will interview them via satellite. In the front seat, Levi fidgets. He's been on medication for ADHD since the third grade and, Carrie says, the fidgeting got worse after the accident. Fascinated by the electric seat adjuster, Levi floats forward and back, up and down.
In the studio, mother and son sit in tall chairs and stare into a television camera about five yards away. Geraldo's voice is channeled through their earpieces.
“Do you ever think about the fact that you were already on the other side there, and but for the intervention of your mom and others, you wouldn't have come back?” Geraldo asks.
“I guess I'm pretty special to be alive,” Levi says through The Grin.
Not one to suffer fools, Geraldo says, “Are you being sincere now, or are you being a wiseguy?”
It's as if Levi had the easy part in this whole thing. He had the luxury of passing out. As he waited to live or die, he didn't have to suffer, like Carrie. In the Lincoln on the way home, Carrie says that, for months after the accident, she heard wailing ambulances that weren't there. She lived in a haunted house, where she would walk into a room and see her son's corpse sprawled on the floor. And as she talks of this hell she had to live through, Levi is telling the chauffeur that you can make an explosive by mixing Mentos and Diet Coke.
Gradually, the phantom sirens faded, and Carrie wouldn't see her son's body everywhere. But the one thing that lingers is the panic that takes over outside a door. The hallucinations out in the open were one thing, but she never knows what's behind the door.
Levi's recovery was remarkable. He had been discharged on day six, in time for the Marine Corps Ball. Carrie was still in awe.
“He led me out on the floor for the traditional mother-son dance,” she recalls. “I had no idea what music was playing...I couldn't take my eyes off his face.”
She has that memory of his face, that same old Levi with the goofy grin who was returned to her for reasons she'll never understand. And she has the memory of a cold blue face with blind eyes. It's something that Levi doesn't understand now, and may not for a while, but whenever Carrie Draher stands outside her son's door, she never knows which face she's going to see.
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