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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 March, 2003, 00:00 GMT
Heimlich: Still saving lives at 83
Jane Elliott
BBC News Online Health Staff

Dr Henry Heimlich
Asthmatics now use the technique
Henry Heimlich's name is known across the globe. Every time he travels, the 83-year-old is greeted by someone with a tale to tell about how the Heimlich Manoeuvre saved their choking mother, father or child.

He has books filled with grateful letters from people who have saved their loved ones.

Since the technique was introduced in 1974 it has saved more than 100,000 US lives, including those of Cher, former President Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, Carrie Fisher and Jack Lemmon.

But despite being the inventor of one of the most significant medical techniques, Dr Heimlich told BBC News Online that he has only been called upon once to carry it out himself - and that was just three years ago.


"I was in this club restaurant eating when I heard someone calling Dr Heimlich. I turned around and saw a man choking so I did the Heimlich Manoeuvre and got it out and then went on and had my lunch.

They say to me 'you saved my child'
Dr Henry Heimlich

"Everybody in the world knows about the Heimlich Manoeuvre and it is in all the dictionaries. It has just got into the Oxford Dictionary.

"It is very gratifying to me. I have been in China, Africa and England and everyone knows about it. They all say to me 'are you Dr Heimlich of the Heimlich Manoeuvre?' They will say to me 'you saved my child'.

"In a period of just a month I got letters from doctors in Spain and the Lebanon and Iran. Each of them said they had saved their own infant by using the Heimlich manoeuvre."

Long used to help choking victims, the technique is now also used to help save the lives of drowning victims by expelling water from their lungs.

It is also recommended for use by asthmatics who are being trained how to use the technique gently on themselves to clear their lungs of mucus.


Dr Heimlich, an American thoracic surgeon, said he started to research the technique after becoming alarmed by the numbers of people choking to death in the US.

"I had read in the New York Times about accidental deaths and they said that choking was the sixth leading cause.

"I started looking into what had been done to prevent choking and found that people were still being advised to slap choking victims on the back even though this had been shown to drive the object deeper into the chest."

From behind, wrap your arms around the victim's waist
Make a fist and place the thumb side of your fist against the victim's upper abdomen, below the ribcage and above the navel
Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into their upper abdomen with a quick upward thrust. Do not squeeze the ribcage; confine the force of the thrust to your hands. Repeat until the object is expelled

Dr Heimlich started to investigate whether pressure to the chest would create enough pressure to expel the object, but found it was pressure to the diaphragm that was needed.

Within weeks of publishing his data, Dr Heimlich started receiving reports about how it was saving lives and the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) said they were so impressed with the technique that they were naming it the Heimlich Manoeuvre.

Dr Heimlich said he had been delighted by the honour.

He said researching the technique had been the easy part - the hard thing had been making the technique so simple that anyone could use it.

"Life is in your hands," he said.

Chest drain

But although he is famed for the Heimlich Manoeuvre, Dr Heimlich has also made a number of other life-saving techniques.

Vietnam is the only country in the world where he is better known for one of his other medical advances than the Heimlich Manoeuvre - the Heimlich chest drain valve.

Haunted by the image of a Chinese soldier who died on the operating table after being shot in the chest in 1945 Dr Heimlich developed a valve to drain blood and air out of the chest cavity.

The device was given to soldiers to carry with them in case they got shot in the chest and the Quakers supplied the devices to the Vietnamese.

"The most moving thing in my life was in 1993 when I went to Vietnam with 25 chest surgeons. I was introduced as 'Dr Heimlich, whose name is known by everyone'.

"I thought it was because of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, but then the man introducing me said it was because of the chest drain valve which saved tens of thousands of lives in Vietnam.

"The Quakers had kept them supplied with the valves.

"He said 'Dr Heimlich, you live in the hearts of the Vietnamese people".

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