96-Year-Old Henry Heimlich, Uses Own Maneuver He Invented for 1st Time

96-Year-Old Henry Heimlich, Uses Own Maneuver He Invented for 1st Time

Since he invented the Heimlich maneuver, Dr. Henry J. Heimlich had spent decades demonstrating the lifesaving technique on people willing to play the role of a choking victim.


But this week, Dr. Heimlich, 96, said he got to do the real thing.

He used the abdomen-squeezing maneuver on Monday night on an 87-year-old woman who was choking at their senior residence community in Cincinnati, popping a morsel of meat out of her mouth.

“I felt it was just confirmation of what I had been doing throughout my life,” he said in an interview on Friday.

After Dr. Heimlich’s lifesaving move, a public relations team working for the parent company of the residence, Episcopal Retirement Services, snapped into action, recording and distributing video interviews with the doctor, the woman he saved, and a dining room employee. 

They also arranged media appearances promoting the claim that this was the first time the doctor had used the maneuver himself to save a life, although decade-old reports cast doubt on that.

Patty Ris, the woman who had been choking, said in one of the videos that she found herself by chance at Dr. Heimlich’s table in the dining hall of Deupree House, the senior residence home. The dining room was at full capacity, about 125 people, said Bryan Reynolds, a spokesman for the company.

“I just sat down at a table,” Ms. Ris said. “I ordered a hamburger, and the next thing I know, I could not breathe I was choking so hard.”

Dr. Heimlich said he turned left to start a conversation. “I saw her face was all stiffened up and her skin was turning dark and she could not speak,” he said. “Of all things, I knew she was choking.”

Dr. Heimlich said he stood up and moved behind Ms. Ris’s chair, turning her slightly so her back was facing him across the armrest.

“I made a fist of my right hand — you can do it with either hand, by the way — and put my arms around her,” he said.

He placed the thumb side of his fist just above her belly button and below the chest to compress the air in her lungs. “I did it three times, and it apparently was pretty much done on the first time,” he said.

“A piece of meat with a little bone attached flew out of her mouth.”

Color returned to her face. Dr. Heimlich said everyone at the table went back to eating.

Is this the first time Dr. Heimlich has ever used the maneuver to save a life?

“Yes, this is,” he said Friday. “I originally did my research studies that led to my developing it, which was in 1974, and I never considered that I would be doing it myself.”

The record is murky in that regard. A BBC article in 2003 quoted the doctor — then 83 — describing a similar encounter where he tried the maneuver on a fellow diner, a man, although the story lacked details such as a precise date, location and name. A New Yorker article in 2006made reference to a similar incident, also without details. But a son, Phil Heimlich, said his father had never mentioned any previous incidents to him. The doctor himself did not return a follow-up call.

Dr. Heimlich, a thoracic surgeon, began researching ways to use pressure on the diaphragm to save victims of choking in the early 1970s, after he learned that nearly 4,000 Americans died each year from choking on food or small objects.

In 1974, he developed the method that compresses the lungs, causing a flow of air that carries the stuck object out of the airway and then the mouth. More than 100,000 people owe their lives to the technique, by some estimates.

On Friday, Dr. Heimlich said he soon saw Ms. Ris after saving her life — again in the dining hall.

“The next day she saw me and sat down next to me,” he said.

Ms. Ris said she later wrote him a thank-you note. “I said, ‘God put me in this seat next to you.’”

About Alexis Sostre

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