I will always remember the day of Dr. Henry Heimlich’s passing as the day his innovation saved my life.
On Dec. 17, I was enjoying a staff lunch at the Giving Room, the yoga studio and juice bar I own in Southold. Four of us were having burritos and someone said something that made me laugh. The next minute, I couldn’t breathe. I started to choke and knew immediately that I was in trouble. I felt fear to a degree I had never experienced before.
I stood up and motioned that I was choking — two hands crossed at my throat. Everyone looked panicked. Instructor Rowan Haussman jumped up to call 911, and Laura Mayo, who works in the juice bar, stood up to help. She came around the back of me, put her arms around me, bunched her hands at my abdomen and pulled me toward her. It didn’t work. She tried it again, without success.
I thought I might die. I felt my legs start to give out. Two times more and finally the Heimlich worked. A simple bean that was blocking my trachea popped out of my mouth.
Laura had saved my life. It took me a moment to catch my breath and steady my legs. I was shaking. I think we all were shaking. We sat back down after a while and started to laugh. I think we were all in shock, and not knowing what else to do, we laughed. (Rowan told the 911 operator all was well.)
Later that evening, I shared this experience on Facebook, and responses from friends started to roll in. People shared their relief and a few said the Heimlich had saved them, one even the prior weekend.
In addition, many let me know that Heimlich, the thoracic surgeon who invented the lifesaving maneuver, had died that very day in Cincinnati at age 92. Hours before my breath was returned to me, his had left him.
I don’t take breath for granted. I have been a yoga instructor for about six years. I was initially drawn to the practice to get in better shape as I neared my 50th birthday. I enjoyed classes that would challenge me physically, spiritually and emotionally.
In recent years, subtler aspects of yoga have led me to meditation and to focus on the miracle of each and every breath, frequently throughout the day. With one conscious inhalation and exhalation, you can focus your mind and reduce stress.
I’m grateful for Henry Heimlich’s maneuver. I’m grateful for my friend Laura Mayo’s lifeguard training, when she learned how to do it.
To all, I say, learn the Heimlich.
Reader Paula DiDonato lives in Cutchogue.