Image: Marcum family photo of L.A (second from right) and his brothers and step father Hank, October 2003
No one knows exactly how many young people have died from playing the deadly “choking game.”
In this first attempt to gain a nationwide picture of the risky practice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports at least 82 young, mostly boys, were accidentally killed from the practice from 1995 to 2007.
Also known as the “blackout game,” the “scarf game” and “space monkey” – the practice involves tying a belt, tie, leash or rope around the neck and temporarily cutting off the blood supply to the brain.
What results is a dreamlike “floating in space” feeling when the blood finally rushes back into the brain. But when a young person tries the game by themselves, the result can be fatal.
That’s what Jeanne Marcum believes happened to her son on the day everything changed April 7, 2004.
Marcum, her new husband Hank, and her two youngest boys spent the day sailing on the St. Johns River, near Jacksonville, Florida. They returned near evening, showered and popped a pizza into the oven for dinner.
About that time, Jeanne’s eldest, 13-year-old Luke Austin, known as L.A., asked to spend the night at a friend’s house. He was told no because of bad grades. L.A. went to his room.
About 20 minutes later, the pizza was finished and L.A.’s 9-year-old brother went upstairs to call him to dinner. The younger boy came downstairs frustrated and apparently puzzled. Was L.A. hanging from the bunk bed with a leather belt around his neck as a joke?
“Come get him,” he told his mom. “He won’t talk to me.”
When a sheriff’s deputy arrived at approximately 9:30 p.m., he found the boy lying on the floor, with Jeanne and a neighbor, who was also a nurse, working over him. They administered CPR, but it was no use. L.A. was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Marcum only learned about the “choking game” after her son died. She now believes he was playing the game and accidentally fell forward into the belt around his neck.
The CDC report finds that almost 96 percent of the deaths occurred when the youth was alone. And 93 percent of parents had no concept of the game until their child died.
"Nearly all parents whose children died were not aware of, or familiar with, this activity before the child's death,” says Robin L. Toblin, of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC told the Washington Post.
Toblin’s report is in the February 15th issue of the CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Jeanne Marcum concurs. “I had no idea,” she says about the choking game.
It was a year later when she saw a report on the ABC News Magazine show “20/20” that she learned about the fatal game.
“We were paralyzed,” she says about watching the show. “Thinking back L.A. had a drawer full of belts even though he never wore them. He wore turtlenecks even in the summer, but that was L.A. he was eccentric so I didn’t think anything of it," she says.
And L.A. had headaches and bloodshot eyes. “We knew it wasn’t drugs,” Marcum says.
But L.A.’s death is not included in the statistics collected by the CDC. His was ruled a suicide even though there was no note.
The CDC report only includes fatalities that have been attributed to the choking game from either media reports or parents groups. No one knows if this accounting accurately reflects the whole picture.
Like L.A. more than 86 percent of the fatalities were boys in the 11 to 16 age range with a median age of 13.3.
The CDC did not take into account the cases where the cause of death is unclear or those that involved self-strangulation during masturbation. The CDC also did not account for injuries such as fractures, concussion or permanent neurological damage that might have resulted from the choking game.
The CDC investigation began after a Tacoma, Washington doctor sent a letter saying her 13-year-old died from the choking game in 2005. The CDC had to rely on media reports to compile the numbers as well as cross checking them with two parents web sites devoted to the issue. Deaths covered 31 states.
In 1995 there were three or four deaths attributed to the choking game, but that number surged to 22 a decade later and 36 in 2006. In 2007 there were nine deaths counted but that may be attributed in part to a lack of media reports.
The CDC wants parents to know the fad exists and to look for unusual belts, ties, leashes or knotted rope around your child or his furniture. Your child may display bloodshot eyes, marks on the neck and may spend a lot of time alone.
Many of the children are described as bright and attracted to the fact that they could get high without drugs or alcohol.
That too describes L.A.. His mother had repeatedly warned him that alcohol was a problem for some members of the family. And he was very bright, testing above his grade level.
Jeanne Marcum tried to convince law enforcement her son didn’t commit suicide but the “choking game” didn’t move police or prosecutors.
She points out that L.A. was excited about his new video game, Stratego, which she’d bought for him two days before his death. She suggests perhaps L.A. hoped to scare the family but accidentally went too far.
“He started to go into twilight and passed out,” she says. For her, it’s the only explanation that makes any sense. #