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Family warns of dangers of autoerotic asphyxiation and 'choking game'

CLEARWATER — When her grandson died suddenly, Carol Smith was stunned. At first police called it suicide. They'd found 13-year-old Eddie DeJesus hanging from a bar in his closet. Later, they determined that the middle schooler was practicing autoerotic asphyxiation — choking himself to increase sexual arousal.

On Sept. 17, Smith's daughter called from her home in Palm Beach Gardens, hysterical. She'd found Eddie unconscious when she came home from dropping his sister off at cheerleading practice. Smith got in her car and drove from Clearwater across the state.

At the hospital, they surrounded him with stuffed animals. He had just started football, just begun a new year in school. Family and friends held his hands. After four days, he was declared brain-dead.

"We're just in kind of denial that something like that could happen to that little boy," Smith said.

Now Smith and her family are publicly navigating their grief, warning others about the dangers of self-imposed choking in an effort to make sure other families can avoid the same pain.

DeJesus' father, Edward, has appeared in state and national media to talk about what happened to Eddie, Smith said. Less than a week after her grandson died, Smith wrote a letter to the Tampa Bay Times urging parents to talk to their children about choking.

Denial won't help anyone, she said.

She also worries about a "choking game" she has heard described online and in local media.

Unlike autoerotic asphyxiation, which is meant to heighten arousal, young people who play the choking game are chasing a high that comes from cutting off the brain's supply of oxygen.

Peggy Johns, a Pinellas County schools health and wellness specialist, said the game isn't new.

"It's definitely on the radar," Johns said. "It's been around for a while, and it resurfaces every year."

In 2008, an 11-year-old St. Petersburg girl died after choking herself with a belt while playing the game with her 5-year-old sister.

Johns said there's no specific program that addresses playing the "choking game," also known as "suffocation roulette." Rather, the school district's plan focuses on teaching students why cutting off their air supply is dangerous.

That doesn't mean either behavior can't come up in conversation, Johns said. Efforts like Smith's can spark classroom conversations that help school staffers to talk openly with students about potential dangers.

"There's probably not one of our certified health education teachers who's not aware of this risk, this behavior, and probably embeds it in the program that they plan throughout the year," Johns said.

Smith hopes parents talk to their children about autoerotic asphyxiation and the choking game.

"No other parent should have to be devastated by this," she said.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.

Family warns of dangers of autoerotic asphyxiation and 'choking game' 10/04/13 [Last modified: Saturday, October 5, 2013 5:55pm]

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