Dr. Heimlich’s, Heimlich Save
Dr. Henry Heimlich, 96, performed the lifesaving technique he invented for the FIRST TIME when a woman choked on her hamburger in the seat beside him.
By Joanna Walters in New York For The Guardian
The surgeon who gave his name to the simple but dramatic procedure used to rescue people from choking saved someone’s life with the Heimlich Manoeuvre for the first time this week aged 96.
Dr Henry Heimlich’s technique for dislodging food or objects caught in people’s throats has been credited with saving untold thousands of lives around the world since he invented it in 1974 – but he had never once had cause to use it in an emergency situation himself.
Last Monday, however, the retired chest surgeon encountered a female resident at his retirement home in Cincinnati who was choking at the dinner table.
Without hesitation, Heimlich spun her around in her chair so he could get behind her and administered several upward thrusts with a fist below the chest until the piece of meat she was choking on popped out of her throat and she could breathe again.
Heimlich told the Guardian by telephone from Cincinnati.
“That moment was very important to me. I knew about all the lives my manoeuvre has saved over the years and I have demonstrated it so many times but here, for the first time, was someone sitting right next to me who was about to die.”
Heimlich and his son Philip declared this was the first time the retired surgeon had used his technique to treat someone who was choking. Philip stated that he had no knowledge of his father using the technique in any prior emergency.
How to perform the Heimlich Manouvre
- Stand behind the victim with your legs separated, to form a ‘tripod’ shape. If the victim faints or becomes unconscious, this will help you to catch them.
- Reach around the victim from behind. Circle your hands around the victim’s abdomen (stomach).
- Make a fist with your dominant hand. The thumb of this fist should point into the fist. Place this fist just above the victim’s belly button and under the breastbone.
- Wrap your other hand firmly around this fist. Be sure to keep your thumb away from the victim’s body, to prevent injury to the victim.
- Pull inward and upward, pressing into the victim’s abdomen with quick upward thrusts, using force.
- Perform abdominal thrusts in quick succession.
- Repeat the series of thrusts until the object is dislodged and expelled.
Heimlich lived in Deupree House, a senior assisted living centre in the city, where he and other residents had their own apartments but got together for meals in a communal dining room.
Fellow resident 87-year-old Patty Ris, who was quite new to the facility, sat down near Heimlich for dinner when she suddenly began choking on a piece of hamburger meat. A member of staff was heading over to attend to the emergency, when Heimlich calmly stepped in.
“I did the Heimlich Manoeuvre – of course,” Heimlich said. “She was going to die if she wasn’t treated. I did it, and a piece of food with some bone in it flew out of her mouth.”
Heimlich said that the woman never lost consciousness, but after being able to breathe again she was so startled she was unable to talk at first.
“I, however, just sat there absolutely smiling as big as I could,” Heimlich said.
The two had dinner together the following night in celebration.
“She told me how wonderful and fortunate she felt,” he said.
Standard practice for dealing with choking prior to 1974 was to thump the afflicted person on the back. But Heimlich argued that that can force the obstruction further into the gullet, not dislodge it.
He worked on various theories until he finally came up with the procedure in 1974, designed for use by the general public, not just medical personnel, of putting one’s arms around the casualty and exerting upward abdominal thrusts, just above the navel and below the ribs, with the linked hands in a fist, until the obstruction is dislodged.
In June 1974 Heimlich published preliminary findings from his experiments with anti-choking techniques in a US medical journal. Newspapers around the US quickly began picking up on examples where readers, including restaurant owners, had caught word of Heimlich’s article and had tried the maneouvre on choking casualties, with successful results.
Word spread, and that summer the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial in which, with the surgeon’s permission, the technique was officially referred to for the first time as the “Heimlich Manoeuvre”. A year later, Heimlich wrote a peer-reviewed paper for the JAMA on his life-saving discovery. The technique became widely adopted nationally and internationally and is today explained via diagrams on posters in most US restaurants and is also taught in many schools, according to his son, Philip Heimlich.
The surgeon studied at Cornell University in upstate New York, and was also well known in the medical community for pioneering various surgical techniques and a device called the Heimlich valve that can be used for administering triage on chest wounds in the field, including in battle.
Heimlich’s son Philip, who lives near his father in Cincinnati, said the elder Heimlich was widowed lived in assisted accommodation for the elderly but was very fit for his age.
“He swam three or four times a week and went to the symphony and the ballet. I hear he performed his manoeuvre with great agility. I have always been very proud of my dad and I believe he is the person who has saved more lives than anyone living,” he said.
In the US just over 4,800 people die annually from choking through various causes, with around 3,000 of those believed to be from choking on food, according to the US National Safety Council. Between 175 and 200 people die a year in the UK from choking on food, according to the Office for National Statistics.
After her brush with death, Patty Ris wrote Dr Heimlich a note, saying: “God put me in this seat next to you,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer.