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Dr Henry Heimlich uses Heimlich manoeuvre for first time at 96
Surgeon employs anti-choking technique that bears his name to dislodge hamburger from woman’s airway in retirement home
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.
“It was very gratifying,” Heimlich told the Guardian on Friday 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.”
After initial reports emerged of Heimlich and his son Philip declaring this was the first time the retired surgeon had used his technique to treat someone who was choking, an account emerged of an earlier incident.
A 2003 BBC Online report quoted Heimlich talking about using the manoeuvre on a choking diner in a restaurant in 2000. Interviewed again on Friday afternoon by the Guardian, the 96-year-old Heimlich said he did not recall such an incident. His son Philip also stated that he had no knowledge of his father using the technique in any prior emergency.
Heimlich lives in Deupree House, 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.”
Heimlich demonstrates the manoeuvre on Johnny Carson in 1979. Photograph: NBC/NBC via Getty Images
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 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, 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, who studied at Cornell University in upstate New York, is 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 three years ago, but although he lives in assisted accommodation for the elderly he is very fit for his age.
“He swims three or four times a week and he goes 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.