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Dr. Heimlich Uses His Maneuver For The First Time, Saves 87-Year-Old Woman

Dr. Henry Heimlich is interviewed in his home in Cincinnati in 2014.

At New York City Hall in 1981, Heimlich (right) and Mayor Edward Koch demonstrate how a choking victim should signal for help.

Dr. Henry Heimlich didn't hesitate. When a fellow diner started choking, the 96-year-old was ready to perform the maneuver that he invented. He had never actually used the technique in a real situation.

This all happened Monday at an assisted-living facility in Cincinnati, The Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Resident Patty Ris, 87, had swallowed a piece of meat and was struggling to breathe. Perry Gaines, an employee of the Deupree House — who had in fact performed the Heimlich maneuver before — ran toward her table. But Heimlich was already in position.

"Typically, a staff member would do it," the Enquirer reports. " 'But,' Gaines said, pausing, 'it is Dr. Heimlich.' "

Heimlich successfully dislodged the meat from 87-year-old Ris' airway.

"It was very gratifying," he told The Guardian on Friday. "That moment was very important to me. I knew about all the lives my manoeuvre has saved over the years and I have demonstrated it so many times but here, for the first time, was someone sitting right next to me who was about to die."

In a video given to the Enquirer, Ris said she wrote Heimlich a thank-you note that read, "God put me in this seat next to you."

Heimlich invented the maneuver to clear a blocked airway in 1974, after learning that thousands of people died every year from choking. His first test subjects were dogs, Radio Lab explains in an illustrated history. Among the celebrities who have since been saved by the technique are President Ronald Reagan, New York Mayor Ed Koch and Cher.

"Dr. Heimlich always intended his maneuver to be practiced by the public at large, rather than exclusively by health professionals," columnist Dr. Howard Markel wrote for PBS NewsHour in 2014. The journal Emergency Medicine agreed to publish his findings, titled, "Pop Goes the Café Coronary," but Heimlich pushed to have the report shared with the media, even though such publicity was "frowned upon" at the time, Markel wrote.

The National Library of Medicine recommends the technique only for someone who can't breathe, but who is still conscious. It says: "First ask, 'Are you choking? Can you speak?' DO NOT perform first aid if the person is coughing forcefully and is able to speak. A strong cough can often dislodge the object."

If the person is choking, the NLM says to follow these steps (it may take a few tries):

  • If the person is sitting or standing, position yourself behind the person and reach your arms around his or her waist. For a child, you may have to kneel.
  • Place your fist, thumb side in, just above the person's navel (belly button).
  • Grasp the fist tightly with your other hand.
  • Make quick, upward and inward thrusts with your fist.
  • If the person is lying on his or her back, straddle the person facing the head. Push your grasped fist upward and inward in a movement similar to the one above.
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