It’s not often that a single person can make a lasting contribution to society, for example, an invention that saves tens of thousands of lives. Such was the case with Dr. Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver. No one knows precisely how many lives the HM has saved. Most people are cognizant of the HM and its use, but, although the HM was probably his most significant contribution, there was considerably more to his life than that.
Henry Judah Heimlich was born on February 3, 1920 in Wilmington, DE into a family of immigrant Hungarian and Russian Jews. He graduated from Cornell in 1941, and earned his MD at the Weill Cornell Medical College in 1943. Interestingly, during his collegiate days he served as a drum major with the Big Red Marching Band.
During WWII he served in the Navy. For a time, he was attached to a unit of Chinese guerrillas in the Gobi Desert and Inner Mongolia, of all places. During this time, he observed many instances of soldiers dying from chest wounds because medics were unable to drain air and blood from the area. This inspired him to invent, in the early 1960s a valve that could drain the chest and prevent the air and blood from flowing back in, thus enabling a collapsed lung to re-expand. Use of this Heimlich Chest Drain Valve became standard during the War in Vietnam and in hospital emergency rooms and has saved many lives.
In 1955 he developed a course of treatment for dysphagia, the inability to swallow. Dysphagia would condemn the patient to a lifetime of drooling and receiving nourishment through a tube implanted into his stomach, not a pleasant existence. Dr. H figured out how to repair the damaged esophagus using a section of the patient’s stomach. Although it was later determined that a Romanian surgeon, Dr. Gavriliu, had already been using this technique, it was Dr. H who popularized it in the US. It has since became known as the Heimlich-Gavriliu Reversed Gastric Tube operation.
Dr. H developed his famous maneuver in 1974 while serving as Director of Surgery at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati. According to the NY Times, at that time choking from food particles was the sixth leading cause of death in the US. Children were particularly vulnerable. The panicked victim, unable to breath or talk, would gesticulate wildly for assistance. Often, onlookers would think the person was having a coronary. It would only take four minutes for the victim to suffer irreversible brain damage due to oxygen starvation.
According to both the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association the standard remedies were either to give the victim a few sharp smacks on the back or to stick a finger down the victim’s throat to try to dislodge the object. But, often, this would simply push the object further down the throat. Sometimes, the Good Samaritan would be rewarded with a severely bitten finger as well. I witnessed an incident like this at a family gathering in the early 1970s.
Dr. H had a different idea. He felt that there would still be a small reserve of air in the victim’s stomach that could be utilized. He advocated wrapping one’s arms around the victim from behind, making a fist over the navel and thrusting upward sharply. If done properly, the object would pop out like a Champaign cork from a bottle. The medical community and the media largely mocked him and his method, but he persevered. A demonstration on Johnny Carson on the widely-viewed Tonight Show helped considerably. Also, rescue reports by lay persons using the HM began to surface, such as that of a five-year old boy who, having seen a demonstration on tv, used the maneuver to save his friend and a restaurant owner who employed it to save a patron.
The medical community was slow to recognize the maneuver. Many viewed Dr. H as a fraud or charlatan and derided his maneuver, but, as the evidence of saved lived mounted up it became harder and harder to ignore the HM. Finally, 1n 1986 the AHA relented and replaced back slaps with the HM in its literature as the preferred method of treatment for choking victims.
Over the years the HM has become an iconic method for saving choking victims. It is taught in schools, has been portrayed in movies, appears on posters in restaurants and internet educational videos, and has been embraced by most of the medical profession. Luminaries such as Halle Berry, Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others have recounted tales of its use successfully. Ironically, Dr. H, himself, had never used the maneuver until earlier this year when he did so to save a woman in his assisted living facility.
Dr. H was married to the former Jane Murray, a daughter of the famous dance instructor, Arthur Murray. In addition, one of his nephews was the actor/singer Anson Williams, best known for the role of “Potsie” on the popular 1970s tv show Happy Days, which, for you younger readers, starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.
He was the recipient of many awards, such as the prestigious Albert Lasker Public Service Award for developing “a simple, practical, cost-free solution to a life-threatening emergency, requiring neither great strength, special equipment or elaborate training.” He also authored several books and was a popular guest on tv where he would often demonstrate his maneuver. As he told a reporter for Omni Magazine in 1983 “I can do more toward saving lives in three minutes on television than I could do all my life in the operating room.”
Dr. H passed away on December 17 at the age of 96. He impacted tens of thousands of lives and will continue to do so forever. He will be sorely missed.