You’ve seen choking scenes performed to dramatic effect in practically every sitcom. But the reality is no joke. According to a report by the National Safety Council, choking is the fourth most common cause of “unintentional injury death” in the United States; statistics show it killed nearly 4,900 people in 2013.
The number of deaths would be even higher, however, if it weren’t for the Heimlich maneuver, the standard antichoking technique that involves sharp abdominal thrusts to force air from the lungs into the windpipe, to dislodge an obstruction.
Henry J. Heimlich, MDs—the thoracic surgeon who developed this groundbreaking and life-saving procedure back in 1974— died on Saturday, a week after he suffered a heart attack. He was 96 years old.
The New York Times reports that just eight months before his death, Dr. Heimlich used his namesake maneuver on an 87-year-old woman who began choking at his table in their senior residence in Cincinnati; the famous technique forced a piece of meat and and a little bone out of her airway so she could breathe again.
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, do your best to stay calm, and remember these instructions from the American Red Cross for conscious choking victims over the age of one.
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If the person is coughing, encourage them to keep coughing
Coughing is a good sign—it means they can still breathe. And the act of coughing may help dislodge whatever is stuck in their throat. But if they’re not making any noise and can’t breathe, ask, “Are you choking?” Assure the person you know what to do.
Send someone in the area to call 9-1-1.
Give five back blows
The Red Cross recommends this step before starting the abdominal thrusts: Have the person bend forward and hit them on the back between the should blades five times with the heel of your hand.
Do five abdominal thrusts
Make a fist with one hand and place the “thumbside” just above the person’s belly button. Grab your fist with your other hand and give five quick thrusts.
Repeat the back blows and abdominal thrusts
Continue performing five back blows, followed by five abdominal thrusts, until the object comes out, or the person starts to cough. If the person loses consciousness, however, lower them to the ground and begin CPR.
To become more familiar with the Heimlich maneuver, and brush up on CPR, it’s a good idea to take a first aid course. You can look up classes in your area at RedCross.org.