40 years on, Heimlich defending his maneuver
Dr. Henry Heimlich renews his feud with his old nemesis, the American Red Cross, in his memoirs, “Heimlich’s Maneuvers.”
In stores Feb. 11, the 221-page autobiography (Prometheus Books, $19.95) includes this challenge: “I again call upon the Red Cross to make saving people’s lives a priority, to let go of its unsubstantiated promotion of back slaps and exclusively adopt the Heimlich Maneuver as the preferred method of saving the life of a choking victim.”
The 93-year-old Hyde Park thoracic surgeon and the Red Cross have battled for years over the maneuver. Heimlich invented his namesake series of abdominal thrusts with a team of Jewish Hospital researchers in 1974. He estimates the 40-year-old maneuver has saved the lives of more than 100,000 potential choking victims.
“Heimlich’s Maneuvers” is written in a breezy, conversational style mirroring the doctor’s unassuming style of speaking. He smoothly ushers the reader into his world whether he is recounting his World War II hitch in the Navy spent in the Chinese desert or his first date with the woman, Jane Murray, who would become his wife.
About that date: Heimlich was not a big spender. He took her to an ice cream shop in New York City, where he was in the third year of his residency and she was visiting her parents. He ate two scoops of butter pecan. She asked questions. He gave one-word answers about himself. She changed the subject. He opened up when she started asking him about his line of work, saving lives.
Henry Heimlich, the Cincinnati doctor famous for popularizing an abdominal thrust known as the Heimlich maneuver to save choking victims, has written a memoir that acknowledges the controversy that accompanied that medical procedure and others he invented or advocated.
In the autobiography to be published next month, Heimlich said he still believes that inoculating AIDS patients with malaria has the potential to cure the deadly disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Some medical authorities have criticized that suggestion.
Others have criticized his suggestions that the Heimlich maneuver might benefit drowning victims or people suffering asthma attacks.
“Some of my ideas have been adopted the world over, while some have not been fully put to the test,” Heimlich wrote. “And I’ll be the first to admit that a number are controversial and, in some ways, unorthodox.”
Heimlich, who in 1962 invented a chest drain valve credited with saving the lives of wounded American soldiers during the Vietnam War, moved to Cincinnati in 1968 to become head of surgery at Jewish Hospital. The Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, which prevents lungs from collapsing, continues to be used by hospitals and military units worldwide, the book noted.
Heimlich’s memoir looks beyond the invention of the author’s eponymous technique, which has saved countless choking victims since 1974. The book begins with Heimlich’s comfortable childhood in New Rochelle, N.Y.—filled with daydreams of “medical discovery”—and follows him through his training at Cornell Medical College, his service in the Navy during WWII at a Gobi Desert hospital, his marriage, and his establishment of a remarkable surgical practice. He proudly shares his astounding list of medical inventions, including a “reversed gastric tube operation” that allowed patients with damaged esophagi (and credits Romanian doctor Dan Gavriliu, who independently developed a similar procedure four years prior, but was behind the Iron Curtain) to eat again; exercises that taught people to swallow who’d lost the physical ability to do so; a chest drain valve that advanced the care of patients with life-threatening chest wounds; and a “microtrach” for patients with chronic breathing problems. Heimlich acknowledges that his most famous creation is the antichoking technique that bears his name, which “allows anyone… to save a life.” The book also covers his fascinating but less-well-known legal battle with the Red Cross over its teaching of the Heimlich maneuver. This is a lively read for those beginning medical careers and for anyone interested in the life of a storied man of medicine.