Mike Phillips
(also known as "choking games")

Written by Anne Phillips
e-mail: ivyhousefarm@googlemail.com

"You bend over and take a deep breath, stand up and have a friend push hard on your chest. Then you faint and fall down. They call it the funky chicken?"
"The forced exhalation causes carbon dioxide levels to drop... blood vessels narrow, causing a grand mal seizure."

The church was crowded to overflowing. Even now, I can barely recall the faces of so many acquaintances and friends, both mine and Mike's. But I do remember standing in the church hall afterwards, an unbitten sandwich in one hand and cup of cold tea in the other, looking into the tear-filled eyes of a woman I recognized as the mother of one of Mike's friends.

"You lost one of your sons too, didn't you?" I asked numbly.

She nodded, and I asked how long ago.

"Eight years ago and yesterday," she replied with a half sob. "Call me if you need to talk," she added, giving me a quick hug and turning quickly, too overcome to say more.

Sometimes it feels as if my family's 'hell' night belongs in another lifetime. At other times, it seems like only yesterday when my teenage son attended a pre-Halloween party from which he never returned. In truth, it was seven years ago that the coroner concluded that Mike's had been "an unfortunate, freak accident".

That Hell Night, as they call the eve of that pagan festival, Mike and six friends decided to smoke a joint. Since such behaviour was not allowed at the house, the seven headed out in search of darkness and seclusion, which they found at a nearby church parking lot. When the joint was consumed, one among the group suggested they play a game of hyperventilation before rejoining the party, and together they crouched down in a circle on the tiny patch of grass and each took three deep breaths. Mike was the only one who played the game well that night - so well, in fact, that when he stood up and exhaled hard, he passed out and fell backwards, hitting his head on the pavement.

"The blow, audible to several of his friends, knocked him out," the newspaper article reported.

After a few minutes, Mike regained consciousness, sat up and vomited. He rubbed the back of his head, complaining of a headache and asking the others what had happened. One of the boys dashed back to the party house and returned to the scene with a car. Mike then asked to be taken home to bed, but recognizing the obvious signs of concussion, his friends ignored his request; instead they drove to the hospital and admitted him with a brief explanation about slipping on some wet leaves. After assuring Mike that he would feel better after a good night's sleep and arranging to see him back at home the following morning, his friends returned to the party, blissfully unaware that their parting promise would never be kept.

Had I been at home that night, I could have been by Mike's side during the long night while the hospital staff frequently tested Mike's reflexes and monitored his brain patterns. However, since I was staying at a friend's in preparation for my long-awaited graduation day, it was not until early morning that the police finally contacted me with news of my son. By the time I arrived at the hospital, Mike's condition was deteriorating. He looked relieved to see me. We talked briefly, but he drifted in and out of sleep. As the attending doctor pointed out the dark blotches on Mike's brain scan, he seemed perplexed over the extent of the injuries (considering the boys' explanation) and recommended an immediate transfer to University Hospital an hour's drive down the highway.

There was a short delay in the transfer, allowing Mike's sisters, elder brother and I to reach the hospital before the ambulance. As the attendants raced down the hall to surgery, I ran alongside the stretcher, but my words of encouragement and love fell on deaf ears. Mike was already unconscious.

After the first operation, the surgeons were guardedly optimistic about Mike's prognosis, but within hours his blood pressure soared, and once again he was rushed to surgery. During that second operation, the doctors decided against replacing the piece of skull they had sawed through in the first, hoping to relieve the pressure on Mike's bruised brain. However, the procedure fell short of their expectations, and as his brain continued to bleed and swell, Mike slipped even deeper into his coma. Only then did Mike's friends admit to the truth of the matter and the reason for the fall.

For three days, we kept our vigil. I prayed for a miracle, but my prayers were not answered. On the morning of the fourth day, I gave my permission for the life supports to be unhooked. Again I prayed, hoping against hope that Mike's lungs would take over their life-giving task. But within minutes, his chest heaved and fell one last time. The tiny room became deathly quiet and my son's body, deathly still.

Mike was dead, and all I had left were my memories of that handsome young man, the third of my five children, who was always so active and full of life. He had been a willing child to whom I turned for help in our single-parent home. When I was sick, he brought me soup in bed. He was the one I relied upon to look after his two younger sisters while I attended night lectures at university. He taught me how to use my first computer and fixed minor problems on my car. We had moved often since the divorce, and Mike's special job was to hook up the stereo and television equipment. He worked the night shift at McDonald's on weekends to relieve our family's financial pressure; at the same time he struggled to maintain a school average high enough to earn him a place in the mechanical engineering program at the university his brother, eldest sister and I attended. Mike would have made a good engineer, given his curiosity about how things worked, his innate mathematical abilities and the way that he always gave one hundred and ten percent of himself. And therein lies the irony; so well did he play the final game that it cost him his life.

During the long succession of dark days and nights that followed, as I bounced back and forth between the inevitable stages of grief, I invariably revisited the first phase of shock and disbelief. There I would play a game with myself, rewinding and replaying the mental tapes that my confused mind had created once the facts and events of that fateful night were revealed. In my desire to end the nightmare by constructing a different ending, I attached an 'if-only' to the beginning of each tape. If only they hadn't gone out to smoke that joint. If only he'd been facing the other way and landed on the soft grass. If only he hadn't been so tall, or the patch of grass so small. If only the girls had told me that they'd often watched Mike and his friends play the game at our house. If only somebody had warned me of the dangers of hyperventilation games. And at the very least, if only I'd known he would slip away so soon, I would have been with him in the ambulance to say goodbye.

It wasn't until the inquest six months later that I fully understood the facts around hyperventilation games, more commonly called 'pass-out' or 'black-out' by the generation that plays them. As one after another of Mike's companions took the stand, we heard evidence to the fact that such activities are not an uncommon occurrence, especially among adolescent boys. I learned, also, that there are several ways to experience the high that follows the passing out.

"You bend over and take a deep breath, then stand up and have a friend push hard on your chest. Then you faint and fall down," said one girl after admitting to playing the game on occasion and watching it on several more. "They call it the funky chicken," she added, referring to the convulsive-like movements that result. She went on to explain that even though it takes only a few seconds to come around, it feels like two hours have passed.

As I listened to each witness, I remembered reading an article included in the newspaper coverage of Mike's accident, compiled from a statement by a local parent who reported having seen three groups of youths playing the game.

"They'd hold a child against a wall and put their hands against his neck. His whole body would go limp and shake about. Then he would get up really slowly," the article stated, corroborating the earlier description of jerky convulsive-like movements.

After Mike's friends had been questioned to the court's satisfaction, a specialist in lung disorders took the stand to apprise the jurors of the medical facts. He explained that the forced inhalation and exhalation causes the level of carbon dioxide in the blood to drop. This process narrows blood vessels and the blood flow to the brain, causing a grand mal seizure. As such, he concluded, the game is, indeed, a dangerous one.

The juror's findings were unanimous and in the form of two recommendations on the basis of the apparent increasing incidence of injuries and/or death following hyperventilation. The first, directed towards the Ministry of Health, was that information be disseminated to the public by distribution of pamphlets, literature, displays and other media.

Secondly, they recommended that information should be brought to the attention of all school boards pertaining to the repercussions of the dangerous practices of hyperventilation games performed by adolescents who fail to realize the seriousness of this practice. To this end, they also suggested that possibly some of those who have experienced these situations could talk to students in the classrooms concerning the dangers.

Having relived, minute by minute, the events of that fateful night, I left the courthouse feeling emotionally drained. Even so, I felt a certain satisfaction that Mike's death would have some meaning if other young lives would be saved and families spared the heartache of such unnecessary loss. In that respect, the three-day ordeal had given me a sense of closure and pivotal point from which to get on with my life.

And given our visit by the grim reaper and the frightening reality of the fragility of life, get on with it is what we did. At a rented farmhouse, the girls' dream of owning a pony came true; there, too, I found the peace and quiet I needed to begin work on my first book. Simultaneously, I wrote a weekly bereavement column for the local newspaper, a project that helped me, as much as it did my readers, to navigate the seemingly never-ending path to the summit of my grief mountain.

But even as I penned the last article in the series - a piece about acceptance and moving on - I knew that I had one more story to write. For during those two years, yet more tragic stories of death through hyperventilation hit press, prompting me to investigate further. My findings, beginning with a meeting with the deputy coroner and ending with one at a local school, were conclusive. Jury recommendations are executed only at the discretion of the recipients; our case file had been tied up with red tape and buried on bureaucracy's back shelf.

Perhaps now though, after personally raising the red flags and awareness around blackout games, I can finally put the matter to rest.

Thus, my message is to parents. Be knowledgeable of the dangers that our young people face in our fast-paced world where danger lurks around every corner. Be vigilant and tireless in your search for clues that your son or daughter is on a dangerous path or hanging out with the wrong crowd. Ask questions and expect honest answers, for to be informed is to be forewarned.

      "We speak for the dead to protect the living," reads the framed motto hanging in the coroner's office.

I'm betting that if Mike could speak for himself, he would simply say, "... if only I'd known."

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