The surgeon who wrote the book on saving choking victims through his namesake Heimlich maneuver has now penned a new book: his memoir.
Dr. Henry Heimlich’s views on how the maneuver should be used and on other innovations he has created or proposed have put him at odds with some in the health field. But he hopes his recently published memoir will preserve the technique that has cleared obstructions from windpipes of choking victims around the world for four decades and made his name a household word.
“I know the maneuver saves lives, and I want it to be used and remembered,” the 94-year-old retired chest surgeon told The Associated Press this month. “I felt I had to have it down in print so the public will have the correct information.”
Much of his autobiography — “Heimlich’s Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation” — focuses on the maneuver, which involves thrusts to the abdomen that apply upward pressure on the diaphragm to create an air flow forcing food or other objects out of the windpipe.
Heimlich says thousands of deaths reported annually from choking prompted him in 1972 to seek a solution. Over the next two years, leading a team of researchers at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, he successfully tested the technique by putting a tube with a balloon at one end down an anesthetized dog’s airway until it choked. He then used the maneuver to force the dog to expel the obstruction.
“By 1974, I knew I needed to get the maneuver to the public as soon as possible to save lives,” he said.
He appeared on radio and television shows including “Good Morning America” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and started hearing from people who had used the maneuver or been saved by it.
The maneuver made headlines again this month. Clint Eastwood was attending a golf event in California when the 83-year-old actor saw the tournament director choking on a piece of cheese and successfully performed the technique.
“The best thing about it is that it allows anyone to save a life,” Heimlich said.
Heimlich says the maneuver is very effective when used correctly, but he does not approve of American Red Cross guidelines calling for back blows followed by abdominal thrusts in choking cases that don’t involve infants or unconscious victims. Red Cross officials say evidence shows using multiple methods can be more effective, but Heimlich says blows can drive obstructions deeper into a windpipe. The American Heart Association backs abdominal thrusts.
Neither organization supports Heimlich’s view that using the maneuver to remove water from the lungs could save drowning victims. They recommend CPR.
“There is no evidence that abdominal thrusts are effective for drowning victims,” said Dr. Robert Neumar, chairman of the Emergency Cardiovascular Care Committee of the American Heart Association.
Heimlich points with pride to some of his other innovations, such as a chest drain valve credited by some with saving soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. But he has drawn sharp criticism for his theory that injecting patients with a curable form of malaria could trigger immunity in patients with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Medical experts have said injecting patients with malaria would be dangerous and have criticized Heimlich for conducting studies involving malariotherapy on HIV patients in China.
Heimlich mostly brushes off criticism about his work.
“I’ll be the first to admit that a number of my ideas are controversial and in some ways unorthodox,” Heimlich said. “But I have enough guts to know that when I am right, it will come about as the thing to do, even if others do the wrong thing for a time.”
Heimlich now lives in an assisted-living facility but responds to emails and letters about his work and makes guest appearances with the Heimlich Heroes program. The program designed to teach young people how to use the Heimlich maneuver allows him to still pursue his passion for saving lives.
“And I’m not done yet,” he said with a grin.