Dr. Heimlich Uses His Life-Saving Maneuver For The First Time (Or Does He?)

Heimlich Manoeuvre. Image: Evolution and evolvability
Heimlich Maneuver. Image: Evolution and evolvability

**Please see the important note at the bottom of this story.

Imagine coming up with an amazing, life-saving invention. An invention that tens of thousands of people around the world have used to save people’s lives.

And then imagine never using it yourself, not even once, to save a life. Until you were 96 years old.

That’s exactly what happened to Dr. Henry Heimlich.

He invented a life-saving technique called the Heimlich Maneuver. (Pronounced like “Hime-lick man-oo-ver.”)

It’s a first-aid treatment designed to help someone who is choking. If someone gets a piece of food (or a small item) caught in their throat, someone can do the Heimlich Maneuver on them to pop the piece of food out again.

The Heimlich Maneuver should never be done by anyone who has not been properly trained to do it, or it could harm the person. It involves standing behind the person who is choking and squeezing them in a very specific way.

Dr. Heimlich, a former surgeon, developed the procedure in 1974. Since then, it has saved 50,000 lives in the United States and thousands more around the world, according to a website for Heimlich’s company.

But he, himself, had never used it to save a life. Until May 23, that is. That day, Dr. Heimlich was eating a meal in his senior living home. The woman in the seat next to him started to choke on her hamburger.

He said she “obviously wasn’t breathing,” according to news organization CNN. Dr. Heimlich went into action. He spun her around in her chair and went behind her, and performed the Heimlich Maneuver. The piece of meat popped right out.

The woman, 87-year-old Patty Ris, said she would have died if he hadn’t helped her. She said she is very glad that she chose that seat next to him in the dining room that day.

**Note: It may not be the first time, after all, that Dr. Heimlich has used his maneuver. Since this story was published, by TKN and by thousands of media around the world including very reputable news organizations like the CBC and the Globe and Mail newspaper, some people have been questioning whether Heimlich has ever used his technique before or not. People aren’t questioning whether the incident happened, but they are questioning whether the most recent use of the maneuver was the first time Heimlich saved a life with it. He said it was, but there may be other accounts of him saying that in the past, for instance in 2000. Because this is the main point of the story–and it’s in the headline (we subsequently added “Or Did He?” for the sake of new readers)–it means that this story is misleading and possibly just plain incorrect. Journalists make mistakes–we made a mistake and we apologize to you.

Here’s what The Guardian newspaper said in their original story about the incident:
A 2003 BBC Online report quoted Heimlich talking about using the manoeuvre on a choking diner in a restaurant in 2000. Interviewed again on Friday afternoon by The Guardian, the 96-year-old Heimlich said he did not recall such an incident. His son Philip also stated that he had no knowledge of his father using the technique in any prior emergency. 

We didn’t include the information The Guardian so rightly included, because we felt it would cloud the issue. In hindsight, it doesn’t cloud the issue, it actually clarifies it. As the truth tends to do.

Our job at TKN is to take the news and distill it, add context (and curriculum) and present it so that kids can read it. We get our news from many different sources, and we attempt to use as many sources as possible–often as many as 20 sources for one story, including original source material–in order to determine “the facts.” In this case, we all may have had it wrong. Why? Because we live in the age of the Internet. That means that many people, and many journalists, can receive the same information and share it very quickly. If that original information is wrong, then mistakes can become spread very quickly. However, when they do, it is important that the journalist admits she was wrong and helps people to understand why the mistake happened. Thank you to JPS for posting this Slate article on our TKN Facebook page, pointing out the error.

We could have simply taken this story down, but we won’t do that because we think it can be a valuable discussion starter. Please talk to kids about this story, and this error. How bad was the error? Is there a chance that this is the first time Heimlich used his maneuver? How can we know for sure? How could the journalist have checked the story? What steps would you take to ensure a story is factually correct? How could the journalist have told readers that the information may or may not be correct? Etc. -JG.

By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
Can you think of a time that you helped a family member, friend or stranger? What did you do to help them? How did you feel during and after helping them?

Reading Prompt: Elements of Style
The journalist who wrote this article, Joyce Grant, could have started it in a very different way. She could have started it with a statement such as, “Dr. Henry Heimlich used the life-saving method he invented on May 23th to save a woman’s life.” But she didn’t. She began the article by asking the reader to use their imagination. She wrote, “Imagine coming up with an amazing, life-saving invention. An invention that tens of thousands of people around the world have used to save people’s lives. And then imagine never using it yourself, not even once, to save a life. Until you were 96 years old. That’s exactly what happened to Dr. Henry Heimlich.”

Explain the difference in these two style choices and identify how Joyce Grant’s style helps to engage her audience.

Identify various elements of style – including word choice and the use of similes, personification, comparative adjectives, and sentences of different types, lengths, and structures – and explain how they help communicate meaning (OME, Reading: 2.4).

Identify various elements of style – including foreshadowing, metaphor, and symbolism – and explain how they help communicate meaning and enhance the effectiveness of texts (OME, Reading: 2.4).

Language Feature: Pronunciation
This article is about the Heimlich Maneuver, which may not be familiar to everyone. Often when we read an unfamiliar word, we try to figure out how to pronounce it. In the article, the Heimlich Maneuver is broken down into the following pronunciation: “Hime-lick man-oo-ver.”

Using the same method, break down the following words so someone who may not know how to pronounce them are able to:
1. squirrel
2. choir
3. restaurant
4. antarctic
5. library