The suburban mom and her husband were in bed. Their 12-year-old son said good night at 10:45 p.m. before retreating to his bedroom. The boy's sister and two friends were having a sleepover in the basement. Watching a movie downstairs, his little brother was making good on his promise to be in bed by 11 when he made a horrifying discovery.
"He burst in with such force the hinges broke off," the mom remembers. The boy screamed that his brother had hanged himself.
"He was hanging by his necktie from the bunk bed," the mom says. "I couldn't even go in the room. His face was purple and his mouth was covered with foam."
The mom says she knew immediately that her seventh-grader had attempted the popular online "pass-out challenge," also known as "the choking game," in which people cut off their breathing in an attempt to achieve a sort of euphoric high and lose consciousness. The history on his phone showed that he'd been watching videos explaining how he could tie a necktie around his neck in such a way that it would slip off when he lost consciousness. This necktie didn't.
Paramedics took him to Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin and a helicopter flew him to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where he remained in a coma.
"On the fifth day, he just woke up," his mom says. After a few days of speech and physical therapy, the boy made a complete and miraculous recovery.
Other victims of the "pass-out challenge" have not. The death of her 12-year-old son, Eric, inspired California mom Judy Rogg to launch Eric's Cause, a tax-deductible, not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to spreading awareness about the dangers of pass-out activities. "There is a terrific amount of education that has to happen," says Rogg, who has talked several times to the local mother about their joint goal of making kids, schools, parents and others aware of the dangers.
While a decade-old Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found 82 probable choking-game deaths among youths aged 6-19 from 1995 to 2007, the agency suggested the number probably is higher. Rogg points to recent studies showing 75 percent of kids surveyed have heard of some form of pass-out game and that 20 percent to 32 percent admit to trying it. Different from the sexual autoerotic asphyxiation practiced in private by some adults, the pass-out challenge is meant to be public.
The drive to get "likes" or have a video go viral appeals to many children, says Dr. David Hill, chairman of the Itasca-based American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Communications and Media. "'Challenge': There is something magical about that word. This is the new version of the double-dog dare. I'm sure that there were teenagers way back in the day, going, 'Hey, run up and touch that saber-toothed tiger. Everybody will be really impressed.'"
Kids who once participated in a foolish stunt to impress a handful of friends in the room now attempt potentially deadly stunts in the hope of impressing millions of people online, Hill says. The "Tide Pod Challenge" dared people to pop toxic packets of laundry detergent in their mouths. An "Ice and Salt" challenge left some kids with second-degree burns on their arms.
A few hundred of the most popular pass-out videos have been viewed more than 22 million times, Rogg says.
"People come up to me and say, 'We did this at slumber parties when we were kids,'" says the local mom. "But there's been kind of an evolution about how the game's being played."
About a week before she found him hanging, her son had marks on his neck, which he blamed on chemicals in a swimming pool. "I watch 'Forensic Files' and they looked like ligature marks," the mom says. Most of the deaths happen with children who try the challenge alone and wrap something around their necks.
"There's still a degree of magical thinking," Hill says of a young person's ability to think "it can't happen to me." Hill advises parents to be part of their children's social network and pay attention to what is being posted online.
Social media platforms announced an effort to ban the Tide Pod Challenge videos, but the pass-out challenge still lives online.
"It's an education challenge for all parents. Have a talk about challenges. Imagine what might happen," the doctor says, adding that the pass-out challenge is more dangerous than most online dares.
"It's pretty easy to accidentally kill yourself or cause serious brain damage."
The local boy who nearly died is back in school and doing well, although his mom admits to keeping a close eye on him.
She wants to save other families from the horrors of the pass-out challenge.
"I'm on a mission," she says. "People need to know about this."