Medical maverick saved choking victims, dies at 96
Henry Heimlich, the medical maverick who came up with a maneuver credited with saving thousands of choking victims but who damaged his standing as a proponent of the curative powers of malaria, died on Saturday at the age of 96.
Heimlich, a doctor who developed a lifesaving technique to dislodge airway blockages through a wellplaced, forceful hug from behind, died at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati of complications from a massive heart attack he suffered on Monday, his family said in a statement.
A thoracic surgeon who often feuded with the established medical community, Heimlich said the maneuver named after him saved more than 100,000 lives. He claimed to have used it himself in May on another resident of the Cincinnati retirement home where he lived.
“It made me appreciate how wonderful it has been to be able to save all those lives,” he once told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Heimlich came up with the groundbreaking technique in 1974 after reading about the high rate of deaths in restaurants that first were attributed to heart attacks, but later found to have been caused by diners choking on food.
The popular wisdom at the time called for repeatedly slapping the back of a person struggling with an obstruction of the passage to the lungs.
But Heimlich, who was then at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, believed the back slaps could force the blockage deeper.
The Heimlich maneuver called for the rescuer to stand behind the choking victim, apply the thumb-side of a fist to a spot just under the diaphragm and between the lungs. By pushing sharply on that spot, a surge of air from the lungs would then expel the blockage.
Heimlich wrote about his discovery for a medical journal and it began to spread due to media coverage. The many people whose lives have thus been saved include former US president Ronald Reagan and the actresses Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.
But he was also the center of controversy more than once. Heimlich had advocated the use of the maneuver for other purposes — to save drowning victims or to help asthma sufferers — that never gained a following.
And in his later years, he had advocated exposing AIDS victims to malaria, a treatable disease, to boost their resistance.
Henry Heimlich became famous for technique to dislodge airway blockages