Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, the thoracic surgeon and medical maverick who developed and crusaded for the antichoking technique that has been credited with saving an estimated 100,000 lives, died on Saturday at a hospital in Cincinnati after suffering a heart attack at his home there last Monday, his family said. He was 96.
More than four decades after inventing his maneuver, Dr. Heimlich used it himself on May 23 to save the life of an 87-year-old woman choking on a morsel of meat at Deupree House, their senior residence in Cincinnati. He said it was the first time he had ever used the maneuver in an emergency, although he had made a similar claim in 2003.
Patty Ris, who had by chance sat at Dr. Heimlich’s table in a dining hall, began eating a hamburger. “And the next thing I know, I could not breathe I was choking so hard,” she said later. Recognizing her distress, Dr. Heimlich did his thing. “A piece of meat with a little bone attached flew out of her mouth,” he recalled.
While best known for his namesake maneuver, Dr. Heimlich developed and held patents on a score of medical innovations and devices, including mechanical aids for chest surgery that were widely used in the Vietnam War, procedures for treating chronic lung disease and methods for helping stroke victims relearn to swallow. He also claimed to have invented a technique for replacing a damaged esophagus, but later acknowledged that a Romanian surgeon had been using it for years.
A professor of clinical sciences at Xavier University in Cincinnati and president of the Heimlich Institute, which he founded to research and promote his ideas, Dr. Heimlich was a media-savvy showman who entered the pantheon of medical history with his maneuver but in later years often found himself at odds with a medical establishment skeptical of his claims and theories.
Even the Heimlich maneuver, when he first proposed it, was suspect — an unscientific and possibly unsafe stunt that might be too difficult for laymen to perform and might even cause internal injuries or broken bones in a choking victim.
But the stakes were high. In the 1970s, choking on food or foreign objects like toys was the sixth-leading cause of accidental death in America: some 4,000 fatalities annually, many of them children. A blocked windpipe often left a victim unable to breathe or talk, gesturing wildly to communicate distress that mimicked a heart attack. In four minutes, an oxygen-starved brain begins to suffer irreversible damage. Death follows shortly thereafter.
Standard first aid for choking victims, advocated by the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association, was a couple of hard slaps on the back or a finger down the throat. But Dr. Heimlich believed those pushed an obstruction farther down in the windpipe, wedging it more tightly. He knew there was a reserve of air in the lungs, and reasoned that sharp upward thrusts on the diaphragm would compress the lungs, push air back up the windpipe and send the obstruction flying out.
SOURCE: The New York Times