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Choking game death has spurred Calhan mother's outreach

September 12, 2014 Updated: September 12, 2014 at 8:58 am
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photo - Kimi Garnett
Kimi Garnett 

Space monkey, blackout, gasp, airplaning, California high, funky chicken, purple hazing, scarf game.

Martha Garnett, a Calhan mother, didn't know about the choking game or any of those slang words associated with it, until her 15-year-old daughter Kimi died.

Now, she wants to warn about the potentially horrific consequences of the risky behavior that some kids are engaging in to get high. It causes permanent damage to some brain cells and can cause strokes and death.

Garnett will be at the rural Community Outreach Center Health Fair on Saturday in Calhan to provide educational literature to spread the word.

While engaged in the choking game a person cuts off the flow of oxygen to his or her brain to experience a few seconds of euphoria. Some use belts, dog leashes or bungee cords. Or friends take turns wrapping their arms around each others' necks. The pressure on the carotid artery leads to oxygen deprivation and can wreak havoc with a person's heartbeat, medical experts say.

The activity is often referred to by professionals as the "good kid's high," because those who do it are often excellent students immersed in many activities, who don't want to risk getting caught with alcohol or drugs.

Kimi was one of those good kids, Garnett said. The ninth-grader was "goofy and funny," but very serious about school, an A student who played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She had already decided she wanted to attend Texas A&M to study languages. She loved to bake, particularly cupcakes.

"She was always taking food to her friends. I used to tell her she wanted to feed the world," Garnett said.

This week at her home on eastern grasslands near Calhan, she pointed to a comfortable chair in the living room.

"This was exactly where she was sitting when I talked to her for the last time, before it happened," Garnett said.

It was April 24, two days before the high school prom, and Kimi was bursting with excitement. She talked and talked about an upcoming track meet and about her orange prom dress and how she and friends were going to help each other with makeup and hair.

"She looked beautiful in that dress," Garnett said tearfully.

Everything seemed normal that evening before Kimi went to take a shower.

Garnett was downstairs cleaning and Kimi's stepfather, Henry Suarez, was at the kitchen table eating a late dinner.

When after an abnormally long time Kimi did not come out of the bathroom and did not answer their knocks, they broke down the door.

Kimi was found with a bathrobe belt around her neck, hanging from a shower curtain, according to the El Paso County Coroner's report.

Garnett and Suarez, who both know CPR, worked on her until medics arrived. A helicopter flew Kimi to Memorial Hospital. She did not recover consciousness and was pronounced dead 
April 26 - hours before she would have gone to the high school dance.

The autopsy report said Kimi's death was "anoxic encephalopathy due to asphyxia by hanging." But the manner of death was not determined.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 85 probable choking game deaths between 1995 and 2007, and many injuries. Eighty-seven percent of victims were boys. A global organization called GASP has tracked 1,000 incidents over several years; participants commonly are ages 11 to 16. Nearly all were alone. At least three other incidents in the Pikes Peak region have been labeled as choking game deaths by relatives since about 2008.

There may be many more. Reporting is far from perfect. The CDC website notes that its researchers used media reports when compiling statistics, and death certificates lack details necessary to distinguish victims of the choking game from other methods of strangulation.

Garnett says some people speculated publicly that her daughter committed suicide. Kimi did not leave a note, did not seem depressed and seemed to be looking forward to the weekend and her future, Garnett said. No friend came forward with any information the teen was contemplating suicide, Garnett said.

Garnett and Suarez first attended a support group called HeartBeat to try and deal with grief. It was helpful but focused on people whose loved ones had committed suicide, Garnett said. They were put in contact with parents whose children were thought to have died during the choking game.

This Saturday at the health fair, Garnett will work with another mother, Petra Verhoeven-Jordan, who says her son suffered the same fate in 2011.

Verhoeven-Jordan said some school district officials do not want to discuss the topic on campuses because they fear it will give children ideas.

"But they already have the idea," Verhoeven-Jordan said. "It's readily available on social media."

At the Saturday health fair in Calhan, Garnett and Verhoeven-Jordan will provide literature from GASP and 
Safe2Tell. (Safe2Tell provides an anonymous hotline for teens to report possible school attacks, violence, assaults, suicide, drug and alcohol behaviors.) Garnett believes educating youths about the dangers of risky behavior is vital. She never talked to Kimi about the choking game because she herself didn't know about it. She missed possible signs that Kimi was participating, including bloodshot eyes. She chalked that up to her daughter's allergies.

"I didn't think anything of it," Garnett said.

Garnett said educating others gives her a feeling of healing and peace.

"But even then I come home and just collapse," she said.

She continues with the endeavor because along with the grief, there is anger.

"It's a senseless game and we are losing so many of our kids," Garnett said.

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Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371

Twitter: @mcgrawatGazette

Facebook: Carol.McGraw1

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