Choking’s no game
Cortland native seeks to inform parents after son dies in tragedy
It seemed just a normal Tuesday with hints of optimism and excitement.
April 23, 2019, was a back-to-school day after a spring break visit for Tristen, 10, with his maternal grandparents in Cortland.
Back home near Akron, he cleaned his mom’s car to earn cash for a new Mortal Kombat game. They walked the dog, and his mom made Tristen’s favorite dinner, Salisbury steak. She would get paid Friday and they’d go get that game, and there was excitement, too, about seeing a new Avengers movie on Sunday.
She cleaned up the dishes, Tristen went to get a bath.
“He goes, ‘I love you, Mommy,’ and he ran upstairs,” recalled Heather Walker Burgess, then-34. She called her husband, who was out of town, then began vacuuming the house. It was between 7:30 and 8 p.m.
“So then I yelled up to Tristen.” But she didn’t hear anything.
It was a split-level home; Burgess went up five steps. His bedroom door was open, the door was cracked to the bathroom. She went and opened the bathroom door a bit more, looked down the hallway again, then entered the bathroom.
“At first I didn’t see anything. And then there was my son hanging … “
There was a half-second pause.
“I got this surge of electricity going through my body. … I got up on the bathtub trying to get it off of his neck.”
She got him to the floor, trying repeatedly to revive him; she tried cardiopulmonary resuscitation. “I’m his mom. I know he’s gonna come back to me. I’ve got this! But I couldn’t. I failed him.”
She said it took several minutes for an ambulance to arrive because the house is right on the border of Tallmadge and Springfield Township, and the emergency service with jurisdiction — not necessarily the closest — responded.
At Akron Children’s Hospital, “I got to see my baby laying there. He just looked completely normal. There’s no ligature marks. It makes me think I got there just moments too late.”
The death was ruled a suicide.
But it wasn’t, Burgess said: Tristen was a happy, smart, “normal” kid with an artistic flair, who would tell his mother if something was bothering him. He adored his baby sister and his father.
“My son didn’t commit suicide,” she said in December during a tearful interview at her parents’ home. “I feel like his curiosity got the best of him because there’s just no way he could just go upstairs and do that. But it happens. Plenty of mothers have told me that it happened … “
Burgess asked to keep private some specific details of that evening’s tragedy. “I feel like it’s more important for people to know that it’s being done than what it’s being done with,” she said. “I still feel very raw about everything. … I’d like that detail to remain private.
“A lot more awareness needs to be brought to attention because these kids are dying, and their deaths are being labeled as suicides,” she continued.
“This was just out of the blue, a random stupid mistake. And if I could make other people aware of it, my son could be saving somebody and then it wouldn’t have all been for nothing.”
So after “months and months” of online research about kids and so-called choking games, she found Judy Rogg.
“She found my website, and she emailed me,” said Rogg, who has a psychiatric social worker background and is a director of Erik’s Cause — https://www.erikscause.org/ — in Santa Monica, Calif. Rogg’s son Erik Robinson was 12 when she found the sixth-grader choked to death in a doorway on a boring, rainy day about a decade ago — also a Tuesday.
“You can be in the next room at home,” she said.
“They find it on the internet … they learn it from a kid at school,” Rogg added. Kids trust their friends; her son Erik was all over the internet. He learned about the non-autoerotic, pass-out activity on a Monday and did it on a Tuesday when he didn’t want to go outside.
The game’s prevalence, she said, is nationwide. “What we discovered, talking to tons and tons of people, police and educators, they’d say: ‘Oh gosh, I used to do this. Is it still around?’ It has been around forever, probably at least 100 years — maybe longer,” Rogg explained.
Other ways are chest compression after hyperventilating — having someone else give a big bear hug, or pressing their friend against a wall until they fall down.
These are kids who think it’s a high, but really they’re cutting off oxygen from the brain. If they survive, they risk stroke, bleeding in the brain, broken bones and seizures, she said. It’s most dangerous if they try it alone — the majority of these deaths, they lose consciousness and can’t get out of it.
“They fall forward or into it, and that’s it. A majority of these deaths are mis-classified as suicide.”
What it is, Rogg said, is “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Tristen’s mom doesn’t know where he got the idea.
“That’s what I’ve always liked to know. But no kids came forward about talking to Tristen about it.”
A Springfield Township, Summit County, detective interviewed players on Tristen’s baseball team. Burgess looked at his PlayStation and Xbox for histories but really didn’t find anything.
“There’s all these challenges and if parents aren’t watching these kids, they’re gonna do it. And then they (the parents) are going to be like I am,” she warned.
Burgess processed what happened for about a year, and recalled one time seeing a rub mark on Tristen’s neck and thought it was probably from martial arts, which was another of his interests. So she thought nothing of it.
“Tristen had always been curious about what it’s like to pass out … so I don’t know if he had tried it before or it was his first time.”
She reached out to the Summit County medical examiner with what she’d learned about similar cases but said she could not get her son’s death certificate changed. “I failed there, and I thought to myself: ‘I can’t just do nothing.'”
Burgess has set about working with a private network of other women, and Rogg, seeking to get information into doctors’ offices and schools. “I want to do that here in Ohio,” she said.
“I just don’t want my son’s death to be for nothing. He made a stupid mistake as a kid — and I knew nothing about this.”
That’s not unusual: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a first attempt to assess the national incidence of deaths among youths resulting from the choking game, found that few of the parents had been familiar with it.
Also according to the CDC, medical examiners and coroners should be aware of the game as a possible explanation for deaths from self-inflicted strangulation among youths ages 6 to 19 that otherwise might be miscategorized as suicides. In addition, better mortality surveillance is needed, and more research should be conducted to determine prevalence, risk factors, and protective factors that will lead to interventions aimed at reducing or eliminating choking-game participation and deaths.
In other words, Rogg said such a “psychological autopsy” should determine what was going on in the young life: “Even smart kids make poor choices with deadly consequences.”
Kathy Meszaros, chief investigator for the Trumbull County Coroner’s office, doesn’t term it a “psychological” autopsy but said all deaths of children are thoroughly investigated, including by a child fatality review board. Checked are the child’s mental heath, medical history, activities, whether there were home problems or school bullying issues, and the like.
“We would definitely check that out,” she stressed. “We don’t automatically rule it a suicide.”
She has heard of the choking game, but hasn’t seen it in her experiences. “Not around here,” she added.
Kelsey Simon, investigator for the Mahoning County coroner, said: “We haven’t experienced anything like that, and I hope we don’t.”
Simon, too, said the office works hard to provide answers for families. “We obtain all medical records, police reports, EMS reports. We dig down … We do look at their history.”
Burgess said she never went back to the house; her husband brought her belongings and she doesn’t go in when she picks up her daughter. She stayed a few months with her mother-in-law, got an apartment, and then her husband sought temporary custody of their daughter Scarlett, just 2 at the time. She said they are legally separated, but she realizes he was “just looking out for his daughter.”
Will the family heal? “I think eventually, after some time. I would like it to be OK,” Burgess said.
It’s been hell on her parents, especially Tristen’s granddad, she said, back home in Cortland.
Friends didn’t abandon her. She works as a bank teller but has flashbacks, post-traumatic stress.
“‘Love you, Mommy.’ I hear him all the time … so sweet and haunting at the same time,” she said. “I function because I have to function,” working, taking care of Scarlett. “And on my bad days, I’m really walking a fine line.”
Burgess’s wait to talk about it “is classic,” Rogg said. “Most parents don’t reach out and talk about it for a while. You’re sitting stuck in your grief. I still feel guilty, from time to time, like, ‘What did I miss?’ But I didn’t miss any signs because there weren’t any.”
But Rogg also stressed: “It’s so important for parents to forgive themselves for not knowing. You can’t be a helicopter parent your whole life. It takes a really long time to forgive yourself. The ‘if onlys’ just eat away. But I put it into perspective of knowing I’m not the only one in this boat that it happened to.”
Parents want to give their kids the benefit of the doubt but should still know their passwords, look at their apps and set parameters. Also, busy parents need to create space for kids to talk to them, Rogg stressed.
“There are no closed doors … Make it clear, these are not rights — these are privileges.”
Will pandemic isolation make the problem worse? “To be determined,” she said.
As a preventive step, Erik’s Cause offers school systems a training module, developed by Rogg and co-founder Stephanie Small, that does not make students curious to participate in such games. The program is founded upon the principles of basic brain science as well as understanding the impact of trauma. This training can be completed in a 45- to 60-minute classroom session taught by any teacher or counselor comfortable with risk-prevention training. It also can be presented as an assembly.
“We never point to the neck because it unintentionally is showing kids ‘how to play,'” the website states. “We never explain how to play these activities with the kids.”