This lifesaving coincidence definitely makes you swallow deeply

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

How cool would it have been to receive one of Adolphe Sax's new musical instruments from him personally? Or how about a cracker from Sylvester Graham? Or even cooler, a chip from Mexican restaurant owner Ignacio Anaya (you know, the one nicknamed “Nacho”)?

Very cool indeed.

But for purposes of this article, maybe getting a catheter inserted by Frederic Foley or a life-saving vaccination from Jonas Salk would be more apropos.

Because that's just what happened to Patty Ris — she had her life saved by none other than world-famous inventor-doctor Henry Heimlich. And he did it by using his well-known abdominal-thrusting Heimlich Maneuver.

Some are billing it as the first time the 96-year-old ever used his move on a person truly in distress since he pioneered it in 1974. (A BBC account contends otherwise.)

The story, full of coincidences or not, proved to be pure catnip to journalists around the globe.

It happened last week when the 87-year-old Ris started to choke on a piece of hamburger at Deupree House, an Episcopal Retirement Services continuing care retirement community in Cincinnati. Heimlich is an independent living resident who swims every other day and takes an exercise class there.

The timing was incredible. Today — June 1 — is National Heimlich Maneuver Day. It's also National Flip a Coin Day, National Say Something Nice Day and National Running Day. But which do you think is going to get the most coverage this year?

Some estimates say the Heimlich Maneuver is responsible for saving more than 100,000 people from choking, which still claims up to 5,000 lives per year and is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. Heimlich and colleagues started promoting the abdominal thrusts on humans after testing the procedure on dogs in the 1970s.

While there has been some disagreement as to how widely the maneuver should be used, and even whether Heimlich himself might have said he had already used it in an emergency about 15 years ago, there's no question Ris is a fan of it.

"God put me in this seat next to you," Ris wrote in her thank-you note to Heimlich.

In the moments just before 7 p.m. on May 23 at the Deupree House, the dining room was crowded. Host Perry Gaines said a fellow worker dashed into the kitchen to find him once the choking was noticed.

Gaines' first concern was that one elderly resident might have been helping another sit down from behind, something typically discouraged.

But Gaines said he then noticed "it was Dr. Heimlich and he was doing the maneuver,” so he stepped back to watch events unfold.

“When I saw Dr. Heimlich doing his own maneuver, I knew it was historic,” he said in a video clip and photo package provided by the facility. “At his age, that's a very physical type of activity. To see him do it is a fascinating thing. The whole dining room you could hear a needle drop.”

A better-timed rescue P.T. Barnum couldn't have orchestrated.

In fact, one of Heimlich's sons used an interview after the event to promote wider education about the lifesaving technique.

“Every kid in the country should learn the maneuver,” 63-year-old Phil Heimlich said. He noted that he and his wife have always screened baby-sitters for their children, now 13 and 10, for the skill. “The maneuver always works.”

In fact, there is an organization, Heimlich Heroes, dedicated to getting youngsters better informed and instructed on the maneuver. It was created by Deaconess Associations Inc. (DAI), with support from The Heimlich Institute.

If you want to know more about Heimlich, a sometimes controversial healthcare professional, you can check out his 2014 autobiography.

If you want to live more in the moment, you can click into your Twitter account and read comments at #HeimlichManeuverDay.

For Ris and about 125 witnesses in the Deupree dining room last week, however, it's going to be hard to top the vision of Henry Heimlich, M.D., saving someone's life by performing his eponymous maneuver himself.

Follow James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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