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 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 lives in a senior assisted living centre in the city, where he and other residents have their own apartments but get 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.”
Standard practice for dealing with choking prior to 1974 was to thump the afflicted person on the back. But Heimlich argued then, and still does, 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, had caught word of Heimlich’s article and had tried the manoeuvre on choking casualties, with successful results.
Between 175 and 200 people die a year in the UK from choking on food, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Read our previous BLOG for choking first aid advice.