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Dr. Heimlich Fighting the Red Cross over Maneuver

The American Red Cross' first-aid procedure still recommends five back slaps and then five abdominal thrusts to deal with choking.


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The Heimlich maneuver

The Heimlich maneuver
Photo Credit: Yori Yanover



In 1974, Dr Henry Heimlich announced the maneuver that carries his name. Until then, when a person choked on food, it was generally accepted that forcefully slapping the victim’s back would fix the problem, when, in reality, slapping often causes the lodged bits to drop deeper into the throat, making things worse.

In 1974, Dr. Heimlich wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that applying upward pressure to the diaphragm, under the choke point, might force the blockage to pop out, like a cork from a champagne bottle. Within weeks he began hearing from doctors who had used the maneuver to save lives, and within months Dr Heimlich and his Heimlich maneuver became famous around the globe.

I have performed the Heimlich maneuver several times in picnics and dinner parties, actually saving lives—not something many journalists can boast.

And yet, as USA Today reports (today, obviously), the American Red Cross’ first-aid procedure still recommends five back slaps and then five abdominal thrusts to deal with choking.

Heimlich says he’s perplexed by this recommendation, seeing as “there has never been any research saying the back slap saves lives.” On the other hand, he continued, “We know the Heimlich maneuver works. So it comes down to a matter of life or death.”

According to the National Safety Council, choking is America’s No. 4 cause of accidental death, after poisoning, driving, and falls. In 2010, choking claimed 4,700 lives, a 4 percent increase over 2009.

“I don’t want to fight the Red Cross,” Heimlich says, “But I don’t want people dying needlessly.”

He kind of fights them, though, bless his heart. He has challenged the Red Cross to produce research showing the effectiveness of back slaps over his own maneuver.

The Red Cross has gone back and forth over the years on endorsing the Heimlich maneuver, and so Heimlich has asked the organization to remove his name from any of its literature and training procedures on choking.

“When they started calling for back slaps first and then the Heimlich maneuver, I wouldn’t let them use the Heimlich name.” he told USA Today. ” Why? Because patients were going to die.”

Dr. Richard M. Bradley, a member of the Red Cross’ Preparedness, Health and Safety Services advisory council and an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston said: “To the best of my knowledge, after doing a pretty thorough literature search, no controlled studies exist comparing back blows to abdominal thrusts or anything else.”

How exactly would you go about conducting such a test – generating spontaneous choking? And who would volunteer to be in the control group?

William Terry Ray, director of the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing’s Nurse Anesthesia program said he looked at 40 years of research, and concluded that “the literature says there is no one definitive treatment to relieve an obstructed airway on a conscious person.”

In his view, “a person may have to use the back blows as well as abdominal thrusts to relieve the obstruction, depending on what caused the person to choke.”

According to NNDB, Dr Heimlich had his first opportunity to actually perform the Heimlich Maneuver only as late as 2000, when he heard a ruckus in a restaurant, and turned around to see a stranger choking. “I did the Heimlich maneuver,” said Heimlich, “and got it out and then went on and had my lunch.”

I checked eBay for “bit lodged by Dr. Heimlich performing the Heimlcih maneuver” and found nothing.

Yori Yanover

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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