“The thrust,” Dr. Heimlich said as he wrapped his arms around my upper abdomen, “is swifter than you think it should be. You can’t worry about hurting the person — whatever pain you cause them is surely better than their death.” Then, with surprising strength for a man then in his eighties, he jerked his arms with sufficient force to knock the wind out of me. If an errant piece of meat had been lodged in my trachea, Dr. Heimlich would have expelled it.
I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati when I learned the Heimlich maneuver from its creator. Then Hillel director Rabbi Abie Ingber ran a remarkable program called Vintage Wines, where students were afforded the opportunity to interact with community leaders. The culmination of our two hours with Dr. Heimlich was a personal lesson in his life-saving techniques. This past week, Dr. Heimlich made headlines when, for the first time, he saved a life with his eponymous maneuver. During my evening with him, though, I was amazed to learn how many lives he had saved in one of medicine’s most diverse and intriguing careers.
After graduating Cornell medical school, Heimlich served as a military physician towards the end of World War II. His role was unique: in an effort to build goodwill with the Chinese, Heimlich was sent to Inner Mongolia to establish field hospitals for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist army as part of intelligence gathering efforts for the Sino-American Cooperative Organization. Limited supplies inspired Dr. Heimlich to be improvisatory in seeking solutions to complex problems; his experiences in China deeply influenced his innovative approach to medicine. In fact, in addition to his technique for saving choking victims, Dr. Heimlich developed several unique lifesaving interventions.
In his autobiography, Heimlich writes how — while still stationed in China — he developed a treatment for trachoma, a contagious bacterial eye infection, by creating a topical cream of Barbasol and sulfa. Heimlich describes how, exactly, this unorthodox human trial was arranged: “I squeezed out a few tubes of shaving cream, mixed the powder into it, and looked around for some initial test subjects. General Fu obligingly “volunteered” several of his trachoma-afflicted soldiers…The treatment was no picnic for the soldiers; they moaned and groaned, twisting on the ground as if they had been stabbed in the eyes….Using this primitive cure, we had triumphed in beating an epidemic disease, one that no one in China — or as far as I knew, the rest of the world — had previously solved.”
Later, Heimlich became the first surgeon in the Americas to perform an organ replacement surgery, by using a piece of the gastric tube to replace the esophagus. He also developed a one-way valve to help patients with a collapsed lung, which he claims saved thousands of lives during the Vietnam War. His rise to fame came in 1974, when he published the paper “Pop Goes the Café Coronary” in the journal Emergency Medicine. The paper outlines his maneuver for saving choking victims; up to that point, he had only used it on dogs in his laboratory. Within a week of the article’s publication, though, the the first human choking victim had been saved. Heimlich’s star rose when celebrities like Ronald Reagan and Ed Koch had food dislodged from their tracheas with his maneuver. Today, it is the standard first response for a choking victim.
I knew none of this when Dr. Heimlich powerfully wrapped his arms around my upper abdomen and thrusted inward. But his passion for life-saving was palpable. I’m grateful that I learned this life-saving technique from its innovator. Whenever my congregation reviews First Aid and CPR, I’m able to share his insight: “If, God forbid, you ever have to administer the Heimlich Maneuver, the thrusts should be swifter than you think they should be,” I say. “That, at least, is how Dr. Heimlich taught me.”