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A deadly high

While growing up, Vincent Kafka always liked to build and tinker with things.

“He was very mechanically inclined,” said Steve Kafka, Vincent’s father, recalling blueprints his son made for an air-powered car.

But the project, and Vincent Kafka’s dream of becoming a mechanical engineer, would not be realized.

The 20-year-old Red Wing native was found dead in his home Feb. 16, 2013. A rope was tied around his neck.

His death was initially ruled a suicide, but Steve Kafka said the details pointed to another cause: the choking game.

With the one-year anniversary of Vincent Kafka’s death this month, his family is hoping to raise awareness for the dangerous activity that has left untold youths dead or permanently disabled.

“We just want to help any other parents who are going through this or try to prevent it,” Steve Kafka said.

The choking game — also known as the pass-out game, space monkey and airplaning, among other names — involves intentional strangulation to the point of fainting.

The goal is to cut the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, causing brief lightheadedness and euphoria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“But the high people feel when they release is their brain cells dying,” said Steve Kafka, who has been researching the choking game with wife Lynda over the past year.

The immediate danger comes from a loss of consciousness — something the CDC says comes on suddenly and can lead to death by hanging if the person is performing the activity alone.

That is what Steve Kafka said he thinks happened to his son.

“The rope was up and over the door,” he said. “Not tied off. No tension. Just enough pressure for him to pass out.”

The choking game also can cause seizures; head and bone injuries from falls; eye hemorrhaging; and long-term brain damage, according to the CDC.

A growing problem

Choking to get high is not a new phenomenon, but the activity has picked up in recent years due to the spread of information on Internet sites like YouTube, according to Erik’s Cause, an educational group founded by Judy Rogg after her 12-year-old son died from the choking game in 2010.

“(Children) lack effective education to combat what they hear on the web, putting them all at risk,” the organization says.

As a resource for parents, Steve Kafka said Erik’s Cause,, is the best he has found.

Unknown danger

Although the choking game has attracted headlines across the country, research on it is lacking compared to other dangerous behaviors.

A 2008 study in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report identifies at least 82 children and adolescents who died from the choking game between 1995 and 2007.

Of those deaths, an overwhelming majority were boys between the ages of 11 and 16, the report states. In almost all cases, the victims were alone when they died.

But, the CDC admits, exact statistics are difficult because death certificates typically do not distinguish between choking-game deaths and other strangulations.

“A lot of it is unreported,” Steve Kafka said. “The only way it gets reported is if the person tried it before or interviews with friends reveal a history.”

Warning signs

The CDC says parents and educators should listen for children discussing the choking game, as it is one of the top warning signs that they are taking part.

Other red flags include bloodshot eyes, marks around the neck, frequent headaches, increased irritability and finding knotted rope or cord tied to furniture.

The Kafkas said they are working on plans to share Vincent’s story with local students and educate them to help prevent other families from having to go through the same pain.

“Just to save somebody, that’s our goal,” said James Kafka, Vincent’s uncle.

“It’s not a game,” he added. “It’s a chance of death.”

In the meantime, the family will honor Vincent Kafka’s life with a candlelight vigil 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday Feb. 15 at their home, 209 W. Seventh St. 

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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