Monday, March 24, 2014

Maneuvering Life

What do President Ronald Reagan, actress Elizabeth Taylor and former New York mayor Ed Koch have in common? Each was saved from choking to death when a bystander performed the Heimlich maneuver. The inventor of the procedure, Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, describes how he developed the anti-choking procedure in his memoir, Heimlich’s Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation.

            Heimlich says that a 1972 newspaper article first sparked his interest in devising an intervention for saving the lives of  choking victims.

            “What caught my eye,” he says, “was the sixth leading cause of accidental death—it was choking on food or a foreign object. Nearly four thousand people were dying from choking each year in this country alone.”

            No stranger to controversy, Heimlich began performing experiments on anesthetized dogs by inserting an object into the animal’s airway and trying various means of dislodging it. He discovered that pushing in and up on the dog’s diaphragm created a burst of air that expelled the foreign object and allowed the dog to breathe freely. He submitted an article about his procedure to a medical journal and the rest is history. The Heimlich maneuver is recognized throughout the world as a reliable method for saving the life of a choking victim. He has been harshly criticized, however, for his canine experimentation.

            This anti-choking technique was not the only medical intervention that Heimlich devised. In the early 1950’s he invented a surgical procedure that restored the esophagus of individuals who could not swallow because of scarring from the ingestion of caustic substances such as drain cleaner or patients who had esophageal blockages for other reasons. Next, in the mid-1960’s, came the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, a device used after chest surgery to prevent lung collapse. The military latched on to the valve for use in Viet Nam and ordered thousands of them.

            “All told,” says Heimlich in his book, “since I invented the device, more than four million Heimlich chest drain valves have saved or improved the lives of patients in hospitals, ambulances, and palliative-care settings at the end of life.”

            Heimlich received an almost fatal blow to his choking maneuver in 1976 when the American Red Cross suddenly disavowed its use as the preferred intervention in saving choking victims. Instead, that organization promoted the use of back slaps as a first resort. If the back slaps did not work, only then should the Heimlich maneuver be employed. Heimlich became incensed and refused to allow the Red Cross to use the term “Heimlich maneuver.” That organization changed Heimlich’s terminology to “abdominal thrusts” and has never looked back. Later, the American Heart Association also adopted the term “abdominal thrusts” and, today, it is mostly journalists and mainstream media who call the procedure “Heimlich maneuver.”

            Heimlich, now ninety-four years old, makes it known throughout his book that he has enjoyed life as a celebrity. In fact, his memoir opens with a two-page description and photos of his appearance on the “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson.

            “I ask myself,” Heimlich writes, “How in the world did I, a physician, wind up on Johnny Carson? How is it that I invented a lifesaving method that led to my becoming so well known?”

            Heimlich served in the Navy for two years during World War II. He was one of twelve Americans assigned to Camp Four in Mongolia where he provided medical care to American and Chinese soldiers as well as local villagers. He fell in love with the Chinese people and vowed to go back after the war ended.

            Heimlich did, indeed, return to China in the 1980’s to conduct experiments on HIV positive individuals by inoculating them with malaria. He is convinced that malaria has the potential for curing the AIDS virus as well as some types of cancer and Lyme disease. Heimlich has been harshly criticized for these clinical trials and labeled a crackpot. Public opinion, however, has never dissuaded Heimlich from doggedly pursuing his controversial ideas.

            More revealing than what Heimlich includes in his memoir is what he leaves out. While he writes about his wife, Jane Murray (heir to the Arthur Murray dance dynasty), and three of his children, he never mentions his son, Peter, with whom he has been embroiled in public controversy for years. Peter Heimlich has accused his father of stealing the “Heimlich maneuver” from a colleague as well as faking his medical credentials. Heimlich also does not disclose that he was fired from The Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati in 1977, ending his career as a surgeon, nor does he acknowledge his co-developer of the Heimlich maneuver, Dr. Edward A. Patrick, who died in 2009.

             Heimlich also fails to mention that his proposed malariotherapy for curing AIDS has been castigated by the Centers for Disease Control and other recognized medical authorities.

            Throughout his book, Heimlich cherry-picks the parts of his life that he wants to publicly reveal, making sure that there are no pits left on the plate.

Published by Prometheus Books, Binding: PaperbackPages: 253, ISBN: 978-1-61614-849-2

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