The Thin Line between an Absurd Episode and an Awful Accident


Thoracic surgeon Henry Heimlich died on Saturday, December 17, at age 96. In 1962, Heimlich “developed the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve which was credited with saving many soldiers’ lives in the Vietnam War and is still used for patients undergoing chest surgery.”

But most people would not be able to tell you that. Nor would they be able to tell you Heimlich lived and practiced medicine for much of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio.

But almost everyone would be able to guess correctly that he developed the “Heimlich Maneuver” that has saved many people from death by allowing bystanders to dislodge pieces of food that have been suddenly obstructing their airways.

Indeed, less than a year ago, Heimlich himself had used the technique to save another resident at the assisted-living facility where he lived after she had started choking on a piece of meat that had a small bone in it.

Even the BBC has provided an obituary, and it includes the following details about the impact of the “Heimlich Maneuver” (though it is spelled “manoeuvre” in British English):

“Since the technique was introduced in 1974 it is believed to have saved the lives of more than 100,000 people in the US alone.

“They include former President Ronald Reagan, pop star Cher, former New York mayor Edward Koch, and Hollywood actors Elizabeth Taylor, Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, Carrie Fisher, Jack Lemmon, and Marlene Dietrich.

“In 2014, actor Clint Eastwood was credited with saving the life of a golf tournament director in California who was choking on a piece of cheese.

“In the UK, celebrity promoter Simon Cowell was reportedly saved by comedian David Walliams, who carried out the Heimlich manoeuvre on him after a mint became stuck in his throat.”

The BBC obituary even links to a somewhat more improbable story:

“A dog owner in the US state of Maryland says her golden retriever Toby saved her from choking to death by performing the Heimlich manoeuvre.

“Debbie Parkhurst, 45, said she was eating an apple at home last Friday when a piece became lodged in her throat and she began to choke.

“Ms Parkhurst said she pounded on her own chest but could not move the piece. Toby joined in, jumping on her chest and dislodging the apple, then licking her face so she would not pass out.”

I would like to take this opportunity to relate a broadly similar but more bizarre incident from my own personal experience.

About ten years ago, I was running the lawnmower over our back lawn, which butts up against a ten-acre woods. Each year, the trees in the woods and in our yard drop a large number of acorns and nuts just ahead of the autumn leaves falling. But in some years, certain trees drop an especially large volume of acorns and nuts, and this was one of those years. I initially left the bag on the mower, but after half a pass across the lawn, there would be about 25-30 pounds of nuts in the bag. So I decided to take off the bag, Running the mower without the bag did speed things up, but the nuts were ricocheting loudly off the wall of the shed and every other hard surface within a few dozen feet of the mower.

I must have been mouth-breathing, and all of a sudden one of the nuts was lodged in my windpipe. I tried to cough it up and, failing to free it, started to walk toward the house. But after a few steps, I realized that I was not going to make it. Instinctively, I punched myself very hard just below the sternum. With the second punch, the nut flew up into my mouth and I spit it out. Other than some soreness in my throat, there was no immediate evidence that anything at all out of the ordinary had just occurred.

Although my wife and son thought that my dry account of what had happened was fairly funny, they seemed more than a little uncomfortable laughing about my brush with a bizarre death. And the fist-sized black and blue mark on my chest that got gradually darker over the next few hours further undercut my attempt to make it into a humorous anecdote.

But a day or so later, it occurred to me that one of our neighbors might have been sitting on the back porch and seen me step away from the mower and then suddenly punch myself very hard in the chest, twice. I imagined them wondering what the hell I was doing, and suddenly it all became almost hysterically funny to me.

I then imagined the coroner telling my wife that I had not died of a heart attack after all—that they had removed a nut from my windpipe. And I knew exactly the look of consternation that would come over her face. And that, too, made me laugh out loud.

The very thin line between an absurd episode and an awful accident depends in this instance, as in many others, on what occurs in a matter of just a very few seconds.

I don’t know whether I subconsciously had the Heimlich Maneuver in mind when I punched myself in the chest, but my experience reinforces my sense that the number of saved lives attributed to Dr. Heimlich’s development of this technique is probably considerably to the low side.

Indeed, many other lives might have been saved if someone else had been around when the victims’ windpipes became blocked. To provide just one very notable example, the great American playwright Tennessee Williams was found dead after he had inhaled the plastic cap of a nasal-spray dispenser.



One thought on “The Thin Line between an Absurd Episode and an Awful Accident

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.