Natosha Anderson, a resident of Calumet City, IL, had never heard of pong pong seeds before a couple of weeks ago. Her discovery was the most tragic kind. Her 22-year-old son, Bernard McCalip, was found on the family’s bathroom floor, where in his last moments his mother says he told her he couldn’t feel his heart and “I took a pong seed.”
“I’m pretty sure he thought it was going to be easy, but it wasn’t. He died in pain. It was slow, and it was painful,” Anderson said in a heartbreaking ABC-7 Eyewitness News report.
Bernard bought the pong pong seeds online from Thailand for a mere $5.
The pong pong tree, also known as cerbera odollam, grows along riverbanks, sandy coasts and near mangrove swamps throughout southeast Asia. The seed pods are commonly marketed on sites like eBay and Amazon as “for decoration.” However, the tree is also infamously known as the “suicide tree” for the silent way it can shut down a person’s heart and may go undetected in toxicology reports.
Dr. Roderick Tung, a heart-rhythm specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, said in the news report, “Cerberin appears to be one of the most lethal agents in this class of medications or natural plants.” Researchers believe more people have taken their own lives using suicide seeds than any other plant in the world.
Nearly 40,000 people in the United States die by suicide annually, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Suicide, the agency reports, was the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression.
Anderson says she was unaware of any depression or suicidal thoughts in her son, but he was bullied in school for many years. He was transgender and transitioning to live life as a woman. SAMHSA cites that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are part of populations at higher risk for suicide.
Unfortunately, pong pong seeds are not banned for purchase despite their lethal reputation. Anderson hopes that by sharing her story she can inform parents and help save some lives.
“I think if I can save one person or make one person aware of what’s going on and what people are selling,” she said. “If I can save one life, just one.”
If you believe your child or a loved one may be suicidal, help is available via Suicide.org 24 hours a day or call 1-800-SUICIDE.