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Zachary Hughes ~~ 12/17/91 - 08/05/07 ~~ Victim of The Choking Game

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On August 5, 2007, life as I knew it came to an abrupt halt. My 15 year-old son, Zach, was found dead, slumped over with a rope around his neck. I will never forget the shock, total dismay, disbelief, and extreme depression when the investigator told me, “Zachary hung himself…”  When I had spoken to a deputy about half an hour prior he told me there had been an accident and that I needed to get there right away. The deputy wouldn’t tell me anything over the phone. When I asked if Zach was alright, and he would only tell me that he really needed to talk to me in person, I knew that meant the worst. I prayed the whole agonizing half-hour drive to the site and reassured myself between tears, stating over and over again, “Zachy will be alright, he’ll be o.k.” 
 
I didn’t understand why he would want to leave the world. He was so happy – just returning from his trip to England three days prior. He excitedly showed me his souvenirs and told me of his purchases of World War II memorabilia (he was a major history buff and was reading books all the time about history). He was so proud of the prices he paid and was proud of the fact that he made investments.  “These are worth far more than I paid for them, Mom. But you don’t sell them. You don’t sell them until you get old, THEN you sell them. They’re an investment, Mom.” He was a very smart kid and for 15 had a great deal of insight. 
 
He was so happy. He loved helping people. It made him feel good to volunteer and he was proud of a job well done. He was on the honor roll. He played the tuba in the band. He was a lifelong scout and was well on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. He had plans. He had goals. He loved to talk and share what he learned. He was in the middle of writing a science fiction book. It is really quite good, especially for a 15 year-old. He had just started on the next chapter the night he returned from England. 
 
Again, he was only 15 years old. He wasn’t a perfect kid – I don’t believe such a person exists. Zach made mistakes and was moody – all normal for a 15 year-old. Like most kids his age, he thought he knew more than he actually did, and that his mom didn’t really know much. But, Zach never gave me any reason to believe he would engage in any major risky behavior. He loved the D.A.R.E. program. He was adamant about his views against drugs and alcohol. He looked forward to getting his driver’s license – he would have been 16 in December. 
 
Zachary did not show any of the classic signs of depression. He was outgoing, not withdrawn. He was planning for the future, not putting his affairs in order. The night that Zach died, he had camping survival gear with him, and had set his alarm for the morning so he could get up in time to go to church. Zach was not depressed. 
 
I truly believe that Zach got caught up in what is called, “The Choking Game.” I had heard it briefly mentioned on some news show, but I didn’t really know much about it. After doing just a small amount of research after Zach died, I am amazed at the extent of the problem. It is extremely prevalent and, like me, most parents are not aware of the problem. What’s even more disturbing is that the kids engaging in this activity are not aware of the dangers. 
 
The way to combat this deadly “game” is through education and straightforward talk with kids and parents. Parents need to know about this problem and keep a careful eye open. Kids need to be taught the dangers. The average kid engaging in this activity is between the ages of 10 and 16, some are older, some are younger. The average kid doing this, is against drugs and alcohol, does well in school and is intelligent, doesn’t cause problems and is considered to be a “good kid” by adults and peers. As intelligent people, these kids are making uninformed, deadly choices. Kids need to know that by depriving their brains of oxygen they are killing their brains. Millions of brain cells die each time they choke themselves. The feeling of euphoria, the warm tingling sensation they feel is a result of brain cells dying. The rush of blood back into the brain causes severe pressure on the blood vessels. This can lead to stroke, seizures, migraine headaches, and other types of permanent brain damage. This activity also stresses the heart, lungs and other internal organs. Performing this activity even once can cause death. 
 
That’s what happened to Zach. He performed the Choking Game alone. He leaned into the rope with the intention of standing up (the rope was not tied to the top of the bar, it was not tight around his neck, and he did not jump from a high place). His feet were on the ground when he was found. He passed out before he could stand up. It only takes five to ten seconds for a person to pass out from doing this. Since he was alone, nobody could help him stand up. The slick rope he used would have normally come loose and allowed him to fall to the ground allowing him to regain consciousness. However, due to the extremely humid conditions and high heat that night, the rope dug in. 
 
I do not believe when discussing this topic with children that extreme details (as above) are necessary. I do believe that letting kids know the consequences of their choices is necessary. Kids at this age are self-centered and have not yet fully grasped abstract thinking. They believe they are omnipotent; that it maybe can happen to others, but that it will never happen to them or their friends. I believe that if educators pair the physical consequences with examples from the kids’ lives, it would make the most impact. For example, if you have a stroke, it can paralyze you. If you’re paralyzed, you can’t play sports, go to the mall, walk without assistance, etc. If you have seizures, you can’t drive. Helping kids pair the knowledge of the physical consequences with their personal lives is the key to helping them choose against engaging in this behavior. 
 
I have heard some educators voice their concern that by educating kids on the consequences, we may be putting the idea in their heads. I understand that concern and have thought long and hard about that. I’m not proposing that anyone give kids step by step instructions. However, I do propose that we inform them and equip them with ways to deal with the situation if it arises. Kids are already aware of it. We need to arm them with the facts, and tools to avoid peer pressure. If they have heard of it, they already know how to do it. What they don’t know is how it is hurting them. We educate kids about the dangers of alcohol and illegal drugs. We don’t tell them, “Step one, find yourself a dealer, step two…” On the contrary, we tell them that if you are confronted with a situation in which drugs and/or alcohol are present, these are the things you should do. We tell them the consequences of doing illicit drugs, how drugs hurt their brains and their bodies. Educating kids about the Choking Game is no different.

A proactive stance is important. Unfortunately, I am unable to be proactive with Zach. I can only be reactive. I can, however, be proactive for other children and families. Zach’s death must not be in vain. Other people need to know about this tragic epidemic. No other parent should have to get the news I got on that awful August day. No other families should need to bury their children because of not knowing the risks of this deadly “game.” Please help me keep all of our other children safe.

Barb Dreyer – in loving memory of her son Zachary Hughes – b. December 17, 1991 d. August 5, 2007

Zach’s death was found to be accidental by asphyxiation resulting from the choking game by a jury in October of 2007.


Dear Annie:
(Submitted to Annie's Mailbox)

A year ago our grandson died (August 5, 2007) at the age of 15. His death was the result of his playing the extremely dangerous game called the Choking Game. This “game” is being played by thousands of kids between the ages of approximately 9 and 16, and the kids are teaching other kids how to play it. There are other names for the game, such as Pass out Game, Space Monkey and others. Kids are playing it in groups and alone. Playing alone is the most dangerous and life-threatening way to play.

When kids teach other kids how to play the game, which involves squeezing the neck to limit blood flow (and therefore oxygen) to the brain, they make it sound like a cool thing to do, a safe way to achieve a “high” or “rush,” without using drugs. It is not safe at all, but very, very risky. Most of the kids playing the game are not troubled kids, but rather high achievers who are against the use of drugs and alcohol. What they do not learn from the other kids are the many dangers involved. Lack of oxygen to the brain kills brain cells, which do not replenish themselves. Many, many serious consequences can occur, including death.

Most parents are unaware that this is something their children may be involved in. Hundreds of children have died, and many others have suffered brain damage, heart problems, and a myriad of other devastating effects from this game. Losing a child causes the worst kind of pain and agony a parent can suffer. Parents need to know this is happening, and kids need to know how very dangerous it is. Most schools teach kids the dangers of drugs and alcohol through the D.A.R.E program, but none that I know of teach anything about the dangers of the choking game, which is becoming more and more prevalent with our kids. One website which addresses this game and other risky behaviors, along with warning signs to look for, is www.chokinggame.net. I am hopeful that others will visit the website and learn of this practice, before learning of it after the fact, as we did. Thank you for sharing this information with your readers.

Still grieving grandma,
Davenport, Iowa

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