An Illinois mother is grieving the loss of her 22-year-old son, who recently died a violent death after making a $5 purchase online.
Natosha Anderson, the mother of Bernard McCalip, said her son committed suicide two weeks ago by ingesting bizarre-looking seeds he had researched on the Internet.
The young man’s family said McCalip, who was struggling with the desire to live life as a woman, recently changing his name to Lucia.
Anderson told WLS-TV that she was not aware of her son’s depression or suicidal thoughts, though she said he was bullied for many years in school.
Now, Anderson is warning other parents of the obscure poison that cost her son his life.
A deadly supplement known around the world as the “pong pong seed” has long been an infamous killer in India and southeast Asia, where the "cerbera odollam" or "suicide tree" grows, WLS-TV reported.
The seeds were largely unavailable in the U.S. until recently, when well-known websites like eBay began advertising the seeds for planting and decorating. The seeds contain a poison that shuts down a person's heart.
"He said, 'I can't feel my heart.' And I said, 'What's wrong? What's going on?' And he said, 'I took a pong seed.' And I said, 'A what? What is that?'" Anderson said. "The police, the paramedics, they didn't even know, no one knew."
McCalip died hours later at Franciscan St. Margaret Hospital in Hammond, Indiana.
"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.
McCalip’s family found him lying on the bathroom floor in their Calumet City home after being sick for hours. In his last moments, the young man confessed to intentionally ingesting the mysterious seeds.
Researchers believe more people have committed suicide with pong pong seeds than any other plant in the world.
"Cerberin appears to be one of the most lethal agents in this class of medications or natural plants," University of Chicago Medicine heart-rhythm specialist Dr. Roderick Tung told WLS.
McCalip's mother said that she was unaware that the box containing the deadly seeds had ever entered her home. According to police, the seeds were purchased online and delivered from Thailand. The purchase included a $4 shipping fee. McCalip’s deadly seeds were a little over $1.
"I can go online and purchase something for $5 — $5 and that can literally devastate a family and kill someone. I don't understand," Anderson said.
The doctors who spoke with WLS said McCalip’s was the first local case they’d heard of.
"It's entirely possible that there are cases of people who have passed away from this and we are not aware of it," University of Illinois emergency room physician and medical toxicologist Dr. Trevonne Thompson said.
"My last words to him were I love you, and his last words to me were, 'I love you, mom no matter what,'" Anderson said. "I don't know how I'm talking … I really don't, I really don't, but I think it's important. I don't want my son to die in vain."
Despite their lethal potency, the pong pong seeds do not appear to be regulated in the U.S. One concern with these seeds, according WLS, is that the poison is extremely difficult to detect. Perhaps this is why in some countries the seeds have been used for murder.
"I genuinely hope this is an isolated incident, but we need to be aware that it could potentially get worse. And we have to do everything we can to protect our children," Dr. Shubhrajan Wadyal of AMITA Health Behavioral Medicine told WLS.
McCalip’s mother is still struggling to cope with the peculiar circumstances of her son’s death. She hopes that by speaking out, she can prevent others from experiencing the same agony Bernard did.
"I think if I can save one person or make one person aware of what's going on and what people are selling," Aderson said, "if I can save one life, just one."