How The Heimlich Maneuver Altered This Guy’s Family History
Henry J. Heimlich, M.D., died Saturday of a heart attack at the age of 96. The estimated 100,000 lives his namesake maneuver is credited with saving include Cher’s, Ronald Reagan’s and my younger sister Ilana’s.
Ilana was 7 at the time, and she was talking while chewing the same tough roast beef sandwich I had ordered while out to dinner with my family on Long Island.
Suddenly, Ilana stopped making any sound and started turning purple across the table from me.
“I didn’t know that I was choking,” she remembers now. “I just knew that all of a sudden, I couldn’t talk”
Only 2 years earlier, Dr. Heimlich, the chief of surgery at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati, invented the technique that made him a household name. He reasoned that even after exhalation, the lungs still packed enough air to expel an obstruction.
Dr. Heimlich’s idea was to make a fist just under the ribcage and deliver six or seven upward thrusts.
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It worked beautifully on dogs. But Dr. Heimlich didn’t want to wait years for the publication of a peer-reviewed human study in an established medical journal. He wanted his invention to start saving lives immediately.
So he published an article in the June 1974 issue of the journal Emergency Medicine, which got noticed by the Chicago Daily News before other newspapers caught wind.
Mainstream medicine was always skeptical. From 1976-85, the Red Cross and American Heart Association (AHA) stuck with advising back slaps first, the Heimlich only as a second resort. (The Journal of Trauma found in 2008 that the technique can fracture ribs and cause potential fatal internal injuries such as perforation of the stomach, esophagus, and aortic valve.)
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The Red Cross and AHA switched to recommending Heimlich thrusts from 1986-2005, but since 2006 have reverted to their 1976-85 recommendations.
Some of the skepticism may be associated with Dr. Heimlich’s reputation for conducting an unsuccessful and notorious study in China—banned in the U.S.—in which HIV patients were injected with malaria to cure the disease. Even his son, Peter, called him a “fraud.”
However, there was no skepticism among those who watched my dad lift my sister in the air, heave inward, and send a hunk of pink meat flying. Applause erupted from the surrounding tables as my sister quickly regained her air and color and cried.
“I’ll never forget the force with which it popped out,” says my dad, now 79. “And I remember being in shock. The whole history of our family could have been tragically different after that day.”
Indeed, my niece and three nephews owe their existence to Dr. Heimlich.
The maneuver was relatively new, but my dad knew it because he had seen a New York weatherman, Frank Field, demonstrate it during a news segment on WNBC-TV.
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“He showed how you do it on an adult, a child, and also on yourself,” my dad remembers.
This was only one day before our fateful dinner, by the way.
During his job as the principal of a Brooklyn middle school, my dad made sure a Heimlich maneuver poster was always displayed in his cafeteria.
“Every year, I walked into the cafeteria to point out the sign, teach kids the maneuver and tell them the story,” my dad says. “They probably thought it was a B.S. story.”