Heimlich maneuver: Dr. Henry Heimlich’s special gift to us

Dr. Henry Heimlich dies - NPR coverage

Dr. Henry Heimlich used the Heimlich maneuver twice to save lives.

Now is the time of year when many of us have been looking for those last special gifts for family and friends.

This blog post is a reminder that we all have the potential to receive a special gift from Dr. Henry Heimlich — the ability to save someone’s life or to have our own life saved.

The Heimlich maneuver is the abdominal thrust used to open the upper airway from obstructions. The maneuver was developed in 1974 by Dr.  Heimlch, a thorasic surgeon who recently passed away.

As a public school teacher for a dozen years, I attended numerous professional development days with topics ranging from how to recognize students who were victims of abuse to how to identify drugs. I’m so thankful that one of those training days was a workshop on using the Heimlich maneuver. We watched a demonstration and then practiced on life-size mannequins.

Teaching — and life in general — includes unsuspected first aid emergencies. My first year of teaching, a student in class had a grand mal seizure. A pregnant girl in my sophomore English class went into labor during class, and I rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital holding her hand. So with every first aid training workshop I attended, I knew the technique could be something that could be vital to know — at some point.

I reviewed the Heimlich maneuver after my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease because one of the many problems caused by the disease is difficulty in swallowing and the potential of choking. Choking can happen to anyone when trying to swallow food that isn’t adequately chewed. Alcohol and dentures also can be factors in choking. Aging can increase the chances of choking because the muscles related to swallowing become weaker.

The need for me to use the Heimlich maneuver happened during a dinner at a conference. About a dozen of us were eating at a steak house.

“She’s choking!” someone yelled. “Who knows the Heimlich maneuver?”


Click on this photo to watch a YouTube video on how to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

I saw one of my colleagues clutching her throat, the signal to use when choking to alert others. Her eyes were wide with panic.

With such a choking incident, an object is lodged in the airway, which blocks breathing. So if the object isn’t dislodged within minutes, the choking victim can die from lack of oxygen.

I looked around expecting several people – doctors, nurses or athletic coaches having dinner in the restaurant – to rush to her aid. But that didn’t happen.

I realized I needed to take action. As I moved toward her, I mentally reviewed the procedure.

I climbed into the booth where she was seated and positioned myself behind her. I put my arms around her abdomen. I made a fist with my right hand with my thumb pointing into her stomach. I wrapped my other hand around my fist.

Then I used my hands to give the abdominal thrust.

I heard her gasp as she started breathing again.

Completing the Heimlich maneuver took just seconds.

The cause of her choking was a piece of steak. Within a few minutes, we were all back eating our dinners — but probably chewing more carefully.

Dr. Heimlich used the manuever twice in his life. He first used the maneuver when he was 80 and saved someone in a restaurant. Then last spring, he saved the life of a resident at the senior center where he lived. Dr. Heimlich was 96 at the time.

When I read a story last spring about Dr. Heimlich saving someone’s life with the Heimlich maneuver, I thought about contacting him. But I didn’t.

So now I’m writing this blog post to encourage you to learn the Heimlich maneuver if you don’t know it. Dr. Heimlich has given us the gift of being able to save someone’s life.




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