Heimlich's Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation

Heimlich's Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation

by Henry J. Heimlich


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Here, in his own words, is the story of one of the twentieth century's most creative medical innovators, Dr. Henry Heimlich.

The thoracic surgeon is best known for having developed the Heimlich Maneuver, the world's easiest-to-learn and most universally known method to save people from choking to death on food or foreign objects. But many don't know about Dr. Heimlich's other life-saving inventions. He is the inventor of the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, which saved thousands of lives during the Vietnam War, and the Heimlich MicroTrach, which provides a remarkably efficient way for people to take oxygen.

In the present decade, Dr. Heimlich has turned his attention to two devastating illnesses for which medicine has not yet found a cure—cancer and HIV. He describes his research and its promise, as well as the controversy and resistance his new ideas have generated from the medical establishment.

Interweaving the author's personal life with riveting stories of his numerous medical breakthroughs, this rich memoir provides insights into the workings of a creative mind and the machinations of the American medical system.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616148492
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 02/11/2014
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Henry J. Heimlich, MD, may have saved more lives over the course of his seventy-year medical career than any other living physician. A renowned thoracic surgeon, now retired, Dr. Heimlich is the president of the Heimlich Institute in Cincinnati. His many honors and awards include the Albert Lasker Award, the American Academy of Achievement Award, and induction into the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame and the Safety and Health Hall of Fame International.

Read an Excerpt


My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovations


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Henry J. Heimlich, MD
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-850-8



A number of years ago, I turned on Comedy Central and got a jolt. It was a rerun of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and I was sitting on the guest couch, talking with Johnny. This was back in 1979, at the height of my fame as the inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver. I was surprised to see myself on national television, but the fact is, the maneuver I had created to save the lives of choking victims had proven so effective that it had made me a celebrity.

Before the episode starts, the Comedy Central announcer introduces it by saying, "Dr. Henry Heimlich, originator of the Heimlich Maneuver, is more than a lifesaver; he is a very funny man."

Then Johnny and I are shown seated onstage. "Would you like to demonstrate the maneuver on a doll," asks Johnny, gesturing offstage, "or on a human?"

I answer, jokingly, "I can perform it on a human ... or on you, Johnny." His response is to hold up a finger and say, "That's one, Doctor." Much laughter from the audience.

I then describe to Johnny the symptoms of choking: the person cannot breathe or talk but can signal he is choking by placing a hand to his throat. Johnny gets in front of me, makes wild motions with his head, and points to his throat.

"Johnny," I say, "this is the first time you've been silent on the show." More laughter from the audience as Johnny holds up two fingers and says, "That's two."

Johnny then calls over the lovely Angie Dickinson and demonstrates the maneuver on her. She turns and kisses him on the lips.

I said, "I discover the maneuver and he gets the kiss!" Big laughs. Johnny holds up three fingers.

I then demonstrate how to do the maneuver on oneself by leaning over the back of a chair. I explain that I learned this from people who wrote me about having saved their own lives. "Of course they saved themselves," Johnny says, "or they couldn't have written about it."

I am confused for a moment and then hold up a finger and say, "That's one, Johnny." It brings down the house.

"Dr. Heimlich and I are appearing at the Comedy Store next week," Johnny tells his audience.

Seeing myself on national television is a very strange experience.

I ask myself, "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? In my younger years, I never dreamed that my name would become a household word, and it was the last thing my wife wanted, a woman who had grown up with famous parents.

I think it started with a basic aspect of my personality: I have always been driven to find creative ways to solve problems; the simpler the solution, the better. I have seen medical problems and sought creative ways to fix them. If something makes sense, I say, do it. I have attacked the problem of saving lives as a creative entrepreneur, you could say, not as a company man or a guy stuck working in the laboratory day in and day out.

I enjoy the challenge of discovering creative and logical solutions to medical problems, not only in coming up with such solutions as the Heimlich Maneuver but also many others. In fact, I have invented a number of surgical procedures and medical devices that have saved, and continue to save, hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

But what makes the Heimlich Maneuver particularly special is this: while most of my other ideas were put into use by medical professionals, the maneuver is accessible to everyone. Because of its simplicity—and the fact that it works when performed correctly—just about anyone can save a life. People can save the life of a stranger, a neighbor, a spouse, or a child. And it can happen anywhere—in restaurants, homes, ballparks—you name it.

You see, you don't have to be a doctor to save a life. You just have to have knowledge and the instincts to respond in a crisis. I suppose I became famous because my name was associated with the maneuver, but what really got the idea going was the fact that it put in people's hands the ability to help others. It has enabled individuals to recognize that a crisis is at hand, to realize that they have the know-how to save a life, and then to act on that knowledge. And that's a very powerful thing.

I know this to be true because I myself saved a life as a "civilian," you could say, well before I became a physician. In fact, I hadn't even begun medical school. The incident happened when I was twenty-one years old and working a summer job as a camp counselor.


It was late morning on August 28, 1941, and I was riding a train from Lee, Massachusetts, to New York City. I had been teaching sailing to children at Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, and now 254 campers, staff members, and I were on our way home after a great summer vacation.

All was well as we sped up to Hatch Pond in northwestern Connecticut. Many of the kids were enjoying their lunches. They were singing and laughing, excited to be on their way home. Suddenly, the train ground to a halt and everyone went flying forward. A quick assessment told me that the campers were shaken up, but no one appeared to be injured. We were in the rear of the train. I ran into the next forward car and knew something had gone severely wrong. This car was tilted, and strangely so. But again, everyone seemed okay.

I jumped out of the train and could not believe what I saw. The four cars ahead were completely off the tracks. The locomotive's engine had been ripped off and was sitting in the pond. (Later, I learned that two engineers had died, trapped in the cab of the submerged engine.) One of the last two cars, where the children and I had been sitting, remained largely undisturbed.

I ran forward, making my way around the disjointed cars. Then something caught my eye. At the base of the second car, I saw a man struggling frantically in four or five feet of water, his head submerged. I jumped in the cold, murky water and swam over to him. I lifted his shoulders to raise up his head. The man coughed and spat out water. His face was blackened with coal dust, and he was crying.

I tried to move him, but it was no use—his right leg was caught in the dirt under the steps of the train car. I could think of nothing more to do than hold the man's head above the water and hope that help would arrive soon.

The man was in tremendous pain, so I tried to engage him in conversation to take his mind off it. He told me his name was Otto Klug, and he was a fireman on the train, the crewperson who shovels the coal that runs the engine. He had leapt from the engine to avoid injury before becoming pinned under the water. To give him some kind of relief, I used the pond water to clean his soot-covered face.

When Mr. Klug found out I was about to be a medical student, he started asking me questions about his condition.

"Am I okay?" he asked fearfully. "Am I going to live?"

"I'm sure you'll be fine," I said.

"Am I going to lose my leg?"

I didn't know what to say. I was quite sure that the answer was yes, but I did not want Mr. Klug to give up hope.

The police and medical personnel finally arrived. By that time, Mr. Klug and I had been in the water for two hours, and we were both shivering. When doctors suggested that they immediately amputate Mr. Klug's leg, he begged them not to. I suggested that they give him morphine, which they did. After that, he calmed down.

Meanwhile, the car was slipping deeper and deeper into the mud. The crew had to act fast. They tied a sheet to the train and ran it under Mr. Klug's back to hold him above the water. Welders used acetylene torches underwater to cut away the steel so that the man could be freed. Seeing that Mr. Klug was in good hands, I returned to the campers, and the press swarmed around us. Mr. Klug was taken to a hospital where his leg was amputated below the knee.

The next day, my father and mother, Philip and Mary Heimlich, were in a hotel in Chicago on the way to visit relatives in Denver. Of course, they had no idea what had happened. The morning after the train wreck, they bought a copy of the New York Times. Mom saw the front-page story of the train crash and read my name and fainted. When she came to, Dad read her the story, and she learned her only son was alive and well.

A month later, I appeared again in the Times, this time in an article whose caption read, "Henry Heimlich of Cornell University Medical College accepting from Frank L. Jones, president of the Greater New York Safety Council, the annual prize, a gold watch, for his calmness and courage in saving a life in a railroad wreck near South Kent, Conn." The article shows a photo of me, beaming, as I accept the award.

Now that I think about it, that recognition was my first brush with fame. Accounts of the accident called me a "hero." But, even back then, I could not have cared less about the attention. Otto Klug was alive, and that's all that mattered.

What I could not have known at the time was that there would be many more Otto Klugs—individuals whose lives I would save using a combination of medical expertise and common sense. And with those experiences would come immense satisfaction from knowing that I was able to help sustain life. But there would be many challenges, too, for I was to learn that the field of medicine was not only a fascinating discipline from which amazing ideas sprout, but that it is also a political minefield.


Excerpted from HEIMLICH'S MANEUVERS by HENRY J. HEIMLICH. Copyright © 2014 Henry J. Heimlich, MD. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Guy Carpico 11

Author's Note 13

Acknowledgments 15

Chapter 1 Heeeeere's Heimlich! 17

My First Save 19

Chapter 2 My Beginnings 25

An Early Innovation 32

Chapter 3 The Depression, Anti-Semitism, and Visits to Sing Sing Prison 35

Anti-Semitism 36

Prison Time 38

Chapter 4 Medical-School Challenges and a Strange Internship 43

Challenges of Entering Medical School 46

A Medical-School Student 48

Joining the Navy 49

A Medical Intern 51

Chapter 5 En Route to China 55

Leaving America 56

I Am a Mule for the US Navy 59

My Mission Disclosed 61

Arrival in China 63

Chapter 6 A Health Clinic in the Gobi Desert 67

Setting Up a Medical Clinic 70

General Fu Tso Yi 72

An Innovation in the Desert 73

A Patient Dies 77

Transporting a Killer 79

Chapter 7 A Medical Newbie Searches for a Surgical Residency 83

A Real Education 86

Chapter 8 Saving a Life and Finding Love 89

Jane 90

A Proposal of Marriage 94

Chapter 9 Restoring the Ability to Swallow: The Reversed Gastric Tube Operation 97

Treating Patients Who Could Not Swallow 98

Creating a New Esophagus from the Stomach 101

Success in the Laboratory 105

Patients Benefit from the Reversed Gastric Tube Operation 108

An Infant Undergoes the Procedure 112

Chapter 10 Performing the Reversed Gastric Tube Operation behind the Iron Curtain 115

Off to Romania 117

Secrecy and a Communist Government 121

Chapter 11 A Promise to a Dead Soldier Kept The Heimlich Chest Drain Valve 125

The Answer: A Valve 127

A Patient Receives the Chest Drain Valve 128

The Military Takes Notice 129

Chapter 12 A Boy Named Hayani 137

A Disastrous Drink 138

Hayani Arrives in Cincinnati 139

I Operate on Hayani 140

Still Unable to Swallow 142

Relearning How to Speak 144

A Visit to Morocco 146

Chapter 13 Saving the Lives of Choking Victims: The Heimlich Maneuver 149

Choking: A Serious Problem 149

A Successful Experiment 151

Using Air in the Lungs to Push out an Object 153

Getting the Word Out 155

The First Save 160

When the Choking Victim Is Alone 161

My Procedure Gets a Name 163

The Maneuver Goes Mainstream 164

Chapter 14 The American Red Cross and Back Blows 171

Teaching a Potentially Dangerous Method 172

Weak Evidence 174

Red Cross Teachings Are Exposed 176

Abandoning Back Slaps 178

The Return of Back Slaps 179

Chapter 15 The Gift of Breath: The Heimlich MicroTrach 183

The Struggle to Breathe 184

A Tiny, Simple Device 185

A New Lease on Life 187

Hidden from View and Cheaper 189

The Need for Patient Access 193

Chapter 16 Making the Most of Good Ideas 195

Using the Heimlich Maneuver for Drowning 197

Using the Heimlich Maneuver for Asthma 201

Teaching Patients How to Swallow 204

Treating HIV and AIDS with Malariotherapy 209

Chapter 17 Working toward a Caring World 213

Returning to China 215

Signs of Peace 217

A Rewarding Relationship with My Father 223

Allowing Children to Be Superheroes 225

A Caring World on a Global Scale 227

More About Heimlich Heroes 231

Notes 233

Index 245

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