Local family joins crusade to end the choking game
December 1, 2009
By Chantelle Lusebrink
Stepping onto the stage at Chimacum Middle School in Chimacum Oct. 13, Ken Tork took a deep breath and began saving lives by confronting a deadly game.
Students throughout the state, nation and the world are playing the choking game and Tork said he knows two things about it: That it’s not a game and that it has deadly consequences.
Tork, his wife Kathy, and 11-year-old daughter Kelly Tork know all too well the game’s deadly consequences. The couple lost their only son, Kevin, a 15-year-old sophomore at Issaquah High School, to the game March 30.
Kevin’s death is the reason Ken Tork was called to Chimacum. On Oct. 7, medics arrived to care for a student who’d passed out after being choked by a friend before a third-period class.
Students play the game to get a high, which occurs when their brains are deprived of blood and oxygen.Principal Whitney Meissner said she was shocked her students could make such a mistake.
“I was and continue to be disappointed at the lack of judgment on the part of the students. However, impulsivity is somewhat typical of adolescents, so we do need to anticipate that kids will do unexpected things,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think that the more kids know about reality the better.“
A life cut short
Kevin Tork was a good son and an excellent student.
“He was like many of you. He liked to hang out with his friends, he was happy, high achieving – he had a 3.9 G.P.A, loved poetry, baseball and basketball,” Ken Tork told students. “This game doesn’t care where you’re from, who your family is, whether you’re male or female, rich or poor, or black or white.”
Kelly found Kevin in his room. He wasn’t breathing and was leaning forward with a bathrobe tie wrapped around his neck.
In the auditorium, frantic 911 calls from Kelly and Kathy were played for Chimacum students.
“You have to help me,” Kelly said on the tape. “I’m really scared and I’m only 11.”
Paramedics arrived and quickly moved took Kevin to Harborview Medical Center. During that ride, they had Kevin’s heart beating and he was breathing, Ken Tork said. But by the time they arrived, though, he was pronounced dead.
“I lost my best friend,” Ken Tork said.
Ending the choking game
“Since my son died, an additional 31 kids have died because of this,” Ken Tork told students. “There have been three just since this high school contacted me 12 days ago. The latest was this last Monday in Liverpool, England.”
The Tork family said they are determined to confront the game head on, exposing their deepest pain, in hopes of saving lives.
“It’s like a cancer that slowly spreads,” Kathy Tork said. “We want to be the antiviral.”
Students usually find out about the game from classmates, church friends, the Internet and older siblings, Ken Tork told the students.
Together, one child will choke another until they lose consciousness or faint. Alone, children use a restraint around their neck and tie it to a door or piece of furniture.
Cutting off blood flow and circulation of oxygen to the brain, and releasing pressure to let circulation rush back, causes the high feeling, said John Milne, an emergency physician at Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah.
“The long-term consequences can be a variety,” Milne said. “But they could end up with permanent motor dysfunction, personality changes, loss of memory and a whole spectrum of other types of responses.”
“You’re friends will tell you it’s safe, that you’ll just pass out,” Ken Tork said to the students. “Some people, when they wake up, are 2 years old. Imagine being 13 and not being able to feed yourself.”
The 31 deaths, he said, are the ones that have drawn media attention throughout the world, but he thinks the numbers are far greater.
Organizations like The Dangerous Adolescent Behavior Education Foundation, Tork said, estimate only 10 percent of choking game deaths have been accurately reported.
Because there aren’t systems in place for proper investigation or analysis, many families believe their sons or daughters committed suicide, he added.
Kevin’s death was listed as accidental by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
But the Torks haven’t been without their critics, they said.
People from youth suicide organizations doubt the game is responsible for so many teen deaths, and comments left on news Web sites have ranged from calling Kevin’s death part of Darwin’s natural selection process to questioning his death as a suicide, Ken and Kathy Tork said.
“There have been some that have crossed the line,” Ken Tork said. “But that’s OK. They are entitled to their opinion. I’ve buried my child. There’s not much that they can do, and if they are commenting, at least they’re thinking about it.”
Through their presentations at local schools, youth groups and other service organizations, the Torks hope to end the choking game.
“I would love the chance to speak to my son’s school, and to his peers, and tell them that this doesn’t just affect them. It affects everyone around them,” he said.
The family has begun to heal, they said, through the speaking engagements, which include a PowerPoint presentation, and video clips of Kevin’s friends and family and his funeral. By keeping Kevin’s message alive, his death won’t be in vain, the family said.
“The vast majority of kids reported that they could not imagine doing this. In their middle school words, they said it was ‘stupid,’” Meissner wrote. “When kids come to that conclusion on their own, we have made an impact.”
The family’s spirituality has also helped them come together.
“We are stronger as a family, stronger in our faith and stronger as a community,” Ken Tork said. “We hug, we hold and we cry.”
This summer, they also took vacations.
“I have a clarity about every day. It’s almost like a fog has lifted,” Kathy Tork said. “It has really showed us how short life can be, to appreciate every day, whether it is a good day or a bad day.”
The choking game
What to know
87 percent of victims are male.
Most that died were between 11 and 16.
Nearly all who died were playing alone.
Deaths have occurred throughout the U.S.
The Dangerous Adolescent Behavior Education Foundation estimates that 416 injuries or deaths have been related to the choking game since 1974, 35 of those from this year.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates at least 82 children, ages 6-19, have died as a result of the choking game between 1995 and 2007. But those results are limited to cases where the deaths produced some sort of media report.
Discussion of the game or its aliases
Marks on the neck
Wearing high-necked shirts
Disorientation after spending time alone
Increased and uncharacteristic irritability or hostility
Ropes, scarves, belts tied to bedroom furniture, doorknobs or found knotted on the floor
Unexplained presence of dog leashes, choke collars or bungee cords near a child’s room
Pinpoint-sized bleeding spots under the skin of the face, especially on the eyelids or the lining of the eyelids and eyes
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Loss of consciousness
Death of brain cells due to oxygen deprivation can cause memory loss and lack of coordination
Broken bones, like the jaw, from falls
Hemorrhages of the eye
Attention and behavior disorders
Where to get help
Centers for Disease Control: www.cdc.gov/Features/ChokingGame
For Kevin’s Sake: http://forkevinssake.wordpress.com/
The Dangerous Adolescent Behavior Education Foundation: chokinggame.net
Youth Suicide Prevention Program: www.yspp.org or call the crisis line 206-461-3222