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Grateful to be dining with Heimlich

The Heimlich maneuver can be less than gentle,

The Heimlich maneuver can be less than gentle, but if needed, you're grateful to have it. Credit: Getty Images/iStock


Ever been Heimliched?

The lifesaving maneuver, developed by thoracic surgeon Henry Heimlich, involves standing behind a person gagging on food and executing a kind of bear hug that, in 1950s wrestling, might have allowed Gorgeous George to quickly dispatch the feared Bobo Brazil.

“Dirty,” we surely would have screamed watching on a black-and-white Zenith TV as George inflicted a series of powerful abdominal thrusts. “You can’t do that!”

Of course, Dr. Heimlich had only the best intentions when he published findings on his now-famous procedure in the 1970s — and still does.

A few weeks ago, the good doctor, 96, and a resident of Deupree House retirement community in Cincinnati, came to the rescue of 87-year-old Patty Ris who was sitting at the same dinner table. Ris began choking on a hamburger and, to say the least, Heimlich seized the moment.

“As soon as I did the Heimlich maneuver,” said Heimlich, “a piece of meat with a bone in it immediately popped out.”

Boy, I bet. From personal experience, I can report that the launch rate of dislodged chopped meat can be awesome. But more on that in a moment.

Is there a good news-bad news story to match the Cincinnati intervention of Dr. Heimlich?

On the one hand, your last bite of burger won’t budge and soon you could be heading for that big barbecue in the sky. “I definitely would have died right then and there,” Ris told The Associated Press.

On the other, Henry Heimlich is in the house — a most fortuitous presence at the dinner table should a wad of beef be lodged in your windpipe. As might have been expected, Doc Heimlich came through in splendid fashion and, happily, Patty Ris was spared.

For the record, some health authorities endorse other ways of aiding persons in danger of choking. And for years, his son Peter has suggested that Heimlich’s reputation is inflated. No matter, as far as I am concerned, Heimlich’s technique is just fine. If not, I wouldn’t be here to say so.

Working for a Manhattan-based magazine in the early 1980s, I went to dinner at a Third Avenue pub with a young fellow who had just been hired. It was only 5 p.m. and the place was empty — no early arriving yuppies — except for a bartender, and, unseen, a bouncer who, I soon would learn, was of admirable size, strength and composure.

We ordered cheeseburgers and beer.

Worth mentioning here is that, since childhood, I have eaten too fast. There is not much reason for it. Ours was a small household — Mom, Dad, me — and, humble as the family budget might have been, we always had enough on the table. No need to gobble. “Chew,” I was nightly instructed.

Soon the food arrived — juicy burgers, two inches thick, cheddar nicely blistered, lettuce and tomato on the side, a big plump roll.

“Well,” I said to the new man. “Let’s dig in.”

He began and nodded approval. “Great stuff.”

I took a bite — the human steam-shovel — and knew almost immediately I was in trouble.

My companion looked up from his plate.

“You OK?”

How could I tell him how un-OK I was? I clutched my throat and shook my head.

The new fellow ran to the bar. The bartender shouted for the bouncer. The bouncer was behind me before I knew it. His embrace was memorable. Once, twice, three times the burly savior pulled against my stomach. He was Gorgeous George; I, after all these years, Bobo Brazil, but now a willing and grateful victim.

For a fourth time, the bouncer squeezed. That did it. Faster than Superman’s speeding bullet, the dislodged morsel rocketed toward parts unknown. I breathed deeply, redeemed.

The bouncer barely stayed long enough for me to thank him. The bartender went back to polishing glasses. The new man said only, “Wow.”

After he saved Patty Ris, Doc Heimlich said he’d never attempted his namesake maneuver before. But news accounts recalled that Heimlich — perhaps a bit forgetful at this time of life — once told the BBC he rescued someone around the year 2000. Whether the burger joint bouncer had earlier experience as guardian angel, I don’t know. Makes no difference: The guy has been tops on my list of favorite people ever since.

The high drama on Third Avenue did not mark the last time I ate meat, but was close to it. I have been a sort-of vegetarian for a long time. The gesture is not so much in solidarity with livestock but with a nod toward safety and prudence.

Still, the smell of sizzling burgers entices and I could falter. Before resuming life as a carnivore, however, I would apply for admission to Deupree House in Cincinnati and ask, please, for permanent assignment to Dr. Heimlich’s table.

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