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Henry Heimlich, Inventor of Life-Saving Maneuver, Dies at 96
The creator of the life-saving maneuver died at a hospital in Cincinnati on Saturday.
By Feroze Dhanoa (Patch National Staff) - December 17, 2016 5:48 pm ET
Henry Heimlich, the surgeon who invented the "Heimlich maneuver" to save choking victims, died Saturday at a Cincinnati hospital, his family said. He was 96.
Heimlich had suffered from heart attack earlier this week.
Best known for creating the life-saving technique, Heimlich developed the method in the 1970s, when the common practice for saving someone from choking involved hitting them on their back. The maneuver is now common first-aid practice.
Practicing with beagle dogs, Heimlich developed his "maneuver" — putting the thumb side of your fist under the person's lower abdomen, grabbing the fist with your other hand and thrusting upward.
When he found a journal willing to publish the technique in 1974, Heimlich had one condition — it had to go out in the press as well. A Chicago health writer with a syndicated column picked it up, and it spread rapidly. When people read about it — and started saving lives because of it — it became standard medical practice.
Untold numbers have been saved by his mind's invention. The technique, portrayed in movies, books and everyday life, has also been credited for saving the lives of countless celebrities from President Ronald Reagan to basketball sportscaster Dick Vitale. For his work on the anti-choking technique, he received the Albert Lasker Public Service Award in 1984
Heimlich himself used the maneuver for the first time in May, nearly four decades after inventing it.
A thoracic surgeon, the maneuver was not the only thing Heimlich was known for. He also created a valve for chest surgery that was widely used in the Vietnam War and developed a surgical procedure to help people with severe esophageal damage. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Heimlich admitted that a Romanian surgeon had been using the procedure for years. His official biography on his website, says he was the "first American surgeon" to use the procedure.
Known for his media savvy, Heimlich often found himself at odds with the medical community, taking his innovations directly to the press rather than going through conventional medical channels. His experimentation with malariotherapy, where a person is intentionally given malaria, to treat patients with HIV was widely criticized by the medical community. His proposal to use the Heimlich maneuver to treat drowning victims, asthma patients, those with cystic fibrosis and even those who suffered from heart attacks was also opposed.
Heimlich also feuded with the American Red Cross for the agency's constant back and forth on including the procedure in its first aid protocol. Today's recommendation from the Red Cross calls for five back blows and then five abdominal thrusts to treat someone who is choking. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Heimlich was offended by the inclusion of the back slaps and asked the agency to remove his name from the procedure in 1976, hence why their literature calls for "abdominal thrusts."
One of Heimlich's critics was his own son Peter, who routinely criticized his father, first by creating pseudonyms to contact reporters and criticize his father as a fraud and later on by openly criticizing his father in attempts to tarnish his name.
When he invented the maneuver he was the chief of surgery at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati. After his contract was not renewed in 1977, he went on to become a professor of clinical sciences at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1920, he moved to New Rochelle, New York with his family and went on to receive a bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1941 and a medical degree from Cornell Medical College in 1943. He soon enlisted in the U.S. Navy and went on a mission with five other sailors and six marines to China where he treated civilians and soldiers. The team was part of an advance weather station in the Gobi desert of Inner Mongolia. In 1969, he moved along with his wife and four children, to Cincinnati.
This report will be updated.
Marc Torrence contributed to this report
Image Credit: Naval Surface Warriors via Flickr Creative Commons
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