Mom of Ontario teen who died after playing hyperventilation game in 1993 says it's still endangering lives

Anne Phillips's son died at age 18 in 1993 after playing a hyperventilation game. After learning last week that another local youth had been taken to hospital after involvement in a similar game, she said she was frustrated, but not surprised.

Mike Phillips-Orchard of Waterloo, Ont., died in 1993 at age 18

Anne Phillips and her son, Michael Phillips-Orchard, shown at his graduation from MacGregor Public School. Phillips-Orchard died at age 18 in the 1990s after playing a hyperventilation game with his friends. (Submitted by Anne Phillips)

For Anne Phillips, life after the death of a child is like "carrying a brick in your pocket." 

"You carry on, but it's never the same," said Phillips, 76.

Phillips's son, Mike Phillips-Orchard, was 18 when he died in November 1993 after playing a hyperventilation game with friends. 

Phillips-Orchard, of Waterloo, Ont., passed out and hit his head on the pavement. He was rushed to a London, Ont., hospital and died a few days later. 

That was the first time his mother had ever heard of the game, but since then, she said, it's been impossible to forget — and she's now been in touch with parents around the world whose children have died from choking and hyperventilation games. 

After reading last week that another youth in Waterloo Region had been taken to hospital after playing a similar game, fainting, and hitting their head, she was frustrated, but not surprised, that it's still happening. 

Phillips says this is the last photo that was taken of her son Michael before his death. (Submitted by Anne Phillips)

'Passed the buck' on recommendations: mom

The jury in the inquest held the spring after Phillips-Orchard's death recommended that education and health officials teach students and the public about the risks of these types of dangerous challenges. 

"Possibly some of those who have experienced these situations could talk to students in the classrooms concerning the dangers and what can happen," the recommendations read. 

But Phillips said she doesn't believe those recommendations were ever acted upon.

"They just passed the buck back and forth — the school said they'd passed it over to the public health, who'd send it back to the school, and nothing had happened," Phillips said in a video interview from her home in Somerset, U.K. 

"That made me angry to think that we've gone through the inquest, and Mike's death was really not that important to bother trying to prevent again."

CBC K-W reached out to the provincial Ministries of Health and Education, Region of Waterloo Public Health and the Waterloo Region District School Board on Dec. 3 to ask what steps had been taken in the wake of Phillips-Orchard's death. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce called Phillips-Orchard's story "tragic," and said the ministry has enhanced a number of policies to ensure a safe environment at school. The statement did not specifically mention policies around choking or hyperventilation games. 

The school board said it was looking into the matter, but couldn't immediately point to resources or programs that spoke to this specific issue.

The other agencies did not respond by publication time.

Phillips hopes someone will still act on the recommendations that came out of the inquest into her son's death in 1993. (Submitted by Anne Phillips)

Still time to act

In the years since her son's death, Phillips has tried to raise awareness about the risks of choking and hyperventilation games. 

She believes such deaths may be more common than people realize, noting her son's cause of death is formally listed as a "head injury," though the game itself was what led to the injury. 

Phillips said Canada and the U.K. have been slow to implement changes to prevent these games, but that other countries have been more forward-thinking — pointing to a symposium held in Paris that had the full support of various levels of government. 

She still hopes to see the recommendations that came out of her son's death acted upon. She'd also like to see recommendations from coroner's inquests treated as requirements, rather than suggestions, as they are in a public inquiry. 

"It's never too late," she said.