TNB Night Owl – Massive Choke

UK box ambulance, photo by John Rumsey

Considering how many people have had their lives saved by the belly pressure promoted by Dr. Henry Heimlich, one would expect the Heimlich maneuver would still be popularly discussed in medical texts. When one goes to places like the Red Cross, though, they don’t call it that. It’s “abdominal thrusts”.

There’s a pretty good reason.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the animal abuse. In 1963, it was legal to drug a beagle, shove a tube down its throat, block its windpipe with hamburger meat until it couldn’t breathe, and then rapidly constrict the dog’s belly to see if the pressure shot the meat out (it did.) It was even legal to get three more beagles, repeating the experiment until he was confident his theory was sound.

It doesn’t have anything to do with Heimlich being a perfect example of popular beliefs being wrong. Through the 1960s and 1970s Heimlich promoted his namesake maneuver in popular culture, attempting to make it the default method of curing a choking victim. He arranged interviews with newspapers and magazines, and from there worked his way up to television talk show appearances, including appearing as a guest on the Tonight Show. The reason for this approach was simple: his technique was inferior. Yes, it did work, but it didn’t have the same success rate as the well-documented process of tilting a person forward and providing strikes to their upper back.

His efforts bore fruit. The Heimlich maneuver because common knowledge, and was misunderstood to be the preferred method of clearing a blocked airway. Eventually, under significant public pressure, the medical community came around. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Heimlich became the recommended first action for choking victims. Medical professionals throughout the country reinterpreted the data to fit the desired answer.

Having succeeded once, Heimlich then pushed for his procedure to be used as a first step for drowning victims, displacing the well-established CPR to the second action. His fame was such that the highly questionable move was successful. For about five years, the Heimlich was the default emergency procedure. Reports of significant injury and reduced resuscitation rates led to it being shifted back to a secondary concern.

The problem is that beliefs, once fomented, are tough to displace. Proponents of the Heimlich… mostly those who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s and were taught based on the bad data… occasionally attempt to bring it back as the default operation in near-drowning incidents, citing the results of a single positive study (which was overseen by Dr. Heimlich and found to have flawed methodology). This, despite the fact that it’s been shown to be useful only in dislodging a solid obstruction, and water is not solid.

So, if it’s not the animal abuse or self-promotion over better lifesaving techniques which have led to Heimlich being held at arm’s length by the medical community, what led to his name being removed from the move he developed which, although less effective than back strikes in many types of choking, has nonetheless led to thousands of lives being saved?

It’s AIDS. In 1994, seeking to reclaim the spotlight, Dr. Heimlich announced he had discovered a possible cure for the HIV infection… and it was malaria.

Because HIV depressed the immune system, and malaria triggered a very strong immune system response, his idea was that the high fever and associated symptoms from severe malaria cases would effectively burn the HIV out of a victim’s system.

The CDC strongly disagreed with him. They may have done so because he had previously claimed that the immune system response to malaria might cure Lyme disease. Or because he had previously claimed that malaria infections might cure cancer.

His efforts to stay in the spotlight had the opposite effect of what was intended. Even as his procedure was correctly taught as being the second-most effective method of clearing a blocked windpipe, his name has been steadily removed from the maneuver in many medical journals and government records.

Question of the night: Have you ever ridden in an ambulance?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.