An alarming number of children across the country secretly play a game that few parents even know about. And for some, the price for playing couldn't be higher.
“You can die from playing this game. I did,” said Levi Draher, 16, during an appearance Thursday on TODAY.
Levi was clinically dead for several minutes when his mother found him hanging from a nylon rope in October inside his room at the Marine Military Academy Boarding School in Harlingen, Texas.
Levi was playing a variation of “the choking game,” a sort of twisted name for a sometimes-fatal practice in which participants intentionally interrupt the supply of life-sustaining oxygen to the brain in order to experience a brief drug-like euphoria when the blood returns.
Sometimes played in groups — in Levi's case he was alone, but other children choke each other — the game claims the lives of dozens of children between the ages of 11 and 17 each year. The exact number is not known because the deaths are sometimes mistaken for suicides.
Like the parents of many children who either died or suffered brain damage from playing the game, Carrie Draher never heard of the choking game until her child endangered his life.
“My introduction was finding him hanging from that rope,” said Draher, who was interviewed along with her son by TODAY host Meredith Vieira.
Draher entered Levi's room to discuss plans for the coming week and found him hanging from a rope at the bottom of his bunk bed. Another boy helped Draher get Levi down and then summoned an ambulance.
“He was blue and purple. We laid him down. No pulse. No respiration,” Draher recalled.
Levi had been hanging there for 20 minutes, and his brain had not received oxygen for five minutes, by the time his mother found him and administered CPR. She saved his life.
Doctors later told Draher that her son, who was in a coma for three days and had seizures after the episode, went into cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for minutes before he was resuscitated.
Levi still goes to rehabilitation every other week. He now realizes he is extremely lucky to be alive, and how dangerous the game he learned from kids at school in the 8th grade can be.
“Why would you do this? What attracts kids to this game?” Vieira asked.
“I don't know,” Levi said. “I did it because I was stressed out and stuff.”
Why kids play
Accurate statistics on the number of children who play the game, and who die because of it, are hard to ascertain because deaths from the “game” are sometimes listed as suicides, said Philadelphia Police Officer Scott Metheny, another guest.
Children have played the game, which has many variations and different names, for generations. The introduction of ligatures, scarves or ropes has made the game more deadly in recent years.
The attraction is the temporary “high” the lack of oxygen produces, without ingesting narcotics, said Metheny, a D.A.R.E. instructor.
“Kids get addicted to the feeling,” Metheny said.
According to a survey conducted by one of a half dozen groups that have sprung up to educate adults and children alike, more than half of 500 boys between the ages of 10 and 15 admitted to playing the game at some point.
Metheny, a spokesman for the group Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play (GASP), is not surprised by such alarming numbers. Having made 150 or so presentations at schools, Metheny estimates that 75 percent of the children he speaks to raise their hands when he asks if they have heard of the game.
“I don't think that many are doing it, but it is very prevalent,” Metheny said.
Metheny's group and others urge parents to talk to children about the dangers of such games and to look out for warning signs that a child might be participating. The signs include:
Marks on the neck from ligatures
Closed bedroom doors
— John Springer, TODAYShow.com contributor