Dr. Henry Judah Heimlich
Feb. 3, 1920-Dec. 17, 2016
By Karen Craigo
Subdiaphragmatic pressure, he called it. The Heimlich maneuver, though, was how it came to be known—given his name because in the two months after a description was published, dozens of lives were saved. This was in 1974.
Dr. Henry Heimlich died in December 2016, and no, he didn’t choke. You thought I was going to say he got a piece of gristle lodged in his windpipe, but that’s not what went down; instead, a less ironic heart attack did him in at the age of 96.
There is a weird part of the Heimlich story, though. Earlier in his final year, he was seated at the dinner table in his retirement community when the woman next to him started to choke on a hamburger.
Quick as a geriatric wink, Dr. Heimlich was up, his arms around his friend to apply, I’ll say it again, subdiaphragmatic pressure, using the procedure that bore his name, that he had perfected in a lab on dogs.
Out popped a chunk of burger, she who had turned blue was pink again, and Dr. Heimlich was a real-time hero. In his lifetime, his procedure saved untold thousands, but until this day, he had never known the satisfying pop of pressure into the bottom of a human diaphragm, nor the wet splat of a killer food chunk shooting to the floor. (I saw my mother save a man in a Red Lobster when I was a kid. Mom expelled the guy’s popcorn shrimp across the breadth of the restaurant as I tried to turn invisible in my booth.)
I would have done it myself, a nurse later told reporters about the event—but it was Dr. Heimlich.
The thing about the maneuver that makes it so effective is that anyone can do it. You can do it on yourself using the back of a chair. Kids have kneeled over their parents to thrust up on the underside of the diaphragm with their fists. And, I guess, a famous elderly surgeon, approaching the end of the line, once shuffled behind his fellow diner to administer a life-saving squeeze.
I picture the good doctor, years, decades, passing between his published description of the procedure and the hamburger incident. I’ll bet he ate out a lot, eyed the other customers, gauged their skin tone, and looked, constantly, for the universal choking sign (two hands signaling a grasp of the throat).
I’ll bet his head snapped up at each sharp breath, each coughing fit. His hands would have tensed, the right one fisted to take its place above the navel, the left one prepared to enfold it. He would have been ready for the hard inward, upward thrust.
Part of me wonders if someone threw him a bone with that stuck chunk of chuck. It seems too good to be true, that end-of-life chance to be the arms and the fists, and not just the guy pointing at a chart, demonstrating on ruddy volunteer.
“It was very gratifying,” Heimlich said, and I know it was. I picture him that May day, finally sitting down to finish his supper, his eyes, as always, still scanning the room.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collection No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and the forthcoming collection Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017). She also has a new chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016). She maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity, and she teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.