You might think that Dr. Heimlich would let the matter rest there, with worldwide fame and mainstream medical acceptance. You clearly don't know Henry Heimlich.
Could the Heimlich be used for drowning victims?
Winning the choking war was only a small victory for Heimlich. He insisted that his maneuver be the first response for ending asthma attacks, helping cystic fibrosis patients, and, most notably, saving drowning victims. When the American Red Cross (and the American Heart Association) snubbed the Heimlich in favor of more science-backed approaches for drowning, the doctor took to the streets and airwaves once again.
If the evidence for the maneuver's use was weak at best for choking victims, then the evidence for it as a method of drowning rescue was a piece of balsa wood trying to hold up a skyscraper. This time, Heimlich cited a handful of questionable testimonials reported by a long-time associate named Dr. Edward Patrick. During his life, Dr. Patrick claimed to be the co-creator of the Heimlich maneuver, going so far as to call it the "Patrick-Heimlich maneuver." One report presented evidence that Dr. Patrick hadn't even completed his residency -- served in a department headed by Dr. Heimlich -- and shouldn't have been given a license to practice medicine. When a Detroit paper called the rescuer of a 2-year-old near-drowning victim who Heimlich and Patrick claimed was saved by the technique, the man said he didn't know the Heimlich maneuver existed at the time, let alone use it in his rescue.
Heimlich called him a "liar" and "totally unscientific."
That didn't deter Dr. Heimlich, who once again sloughed off the chains of science and made a direct appeal to the folks who mattered on the front lines: lifesaving agencies, especially ones that had deals with theme parks and other major commercial venues. Effectively, Dr. Heimlich asked them to ignore the Red Cross' official recommendations in favor of what he believed to be superior lifesaving methods.
When the head of the US Lifesaving Association questioned the ethics of this approach, Dr. Heimlich compared the American Red Cross to Nazi-run Germany, saying, "What he [the president of the USLA] is saying is that you should obey the Red Cross just like Germans had to obey Hitler."
The dogs got spared the second time around
Though he was a voracious advocate of his maneuver, Heimlich's laboratory efforts to discredit opponents were quickly shot down. At one point, a researcher offered to test the maneuver's efficacy in near-drowning situations by experimenting on Heimlich's favorite guinea pigs: dogs. You'd think Dr. Heimlich would be first in line for the dog-dunking booth, but not so; he joined forces with animal rights groups to have the "cruel" study shut down. Not wanting to "start another war," the study's organizer canceled it. Good news for puppies!
One of the problems with using the Heimlich on a drowning victim is that it may cause the victim to vomit and, somewhat ironically, choke. After researching one such case study, Dr. James Orlowski found himself on the receiving end of Heimlich's (by way of Dr. Patrick) attacks.
Initially, Dr. Orlowski suspected little more than bad science was behind Dr. Patrick's response, which called out Orlowski's "anecdotal" claims right before relying on its own anecdotes. Heimlich's entire maneuver was based on a false understanding of drowning, which Orlowski was more than happy to refute. But Heimlich wrote his own response, which the journal refused to publish -- Dr. Orlowski says he saw it, and claims that in it, Heimlich called him a "liar" and "totally unscientific."
With a name like Heimlich, it's gotta be good
Despite the mounting evidence, the Heimlich maneuver continued to be taught as an option in drowning cases. But Heimlich's battles were far from over. One of Heimlich's sons, Peter, set out to discredit his father's career, and people started to take notice. Whether by Peter's efforts, or the evidence against the maneuver, or some combination, major organizations began changing their guidelines to exclude the Heimlich for drowning victims.
The Heimlich maneuver isn't the duct tape of the lifesaving world.
The process hasn't been quick. Just this year, the last major lifesaving agency to promote the Heimlich for drowning finally removed it from its guidelines. As Heimlich's maneuver was coming under more intense scrutiny, he asked the American Red Cross to take his name off their protocol if they continued to recommend back slaps -- he didn't want to be associated with the organization's standards at all, since "patients were going to die" by not receiving the Heimlich first.
The tragic end of the road for Dr. Henry Heimlich
Thirty-one years after the Red Cross and Surgeon General touted Dr. Heimlich's maneuver, the organization recommends only back blows and "abdominal thrusts" for conscious choking victims. No mention of Heimlich.
There is some tragedy in the story of Henry Heimlich, which is bookended by his support for malariotherapy -- injecting malaria into HIV patients in the hopes that it will stimulate the immune system to fight AIDS. You can probably guess that not only does this not work, it could produce disastrous consequences.
Had Heimlich -- who's still alive at age 96, but did not respond to requests for comment on this story -- allowed his maneuver to remain a useful tool to help save a choking victim, he might have been universally revered; he simply never stopped pushing the envelope. Even his first claim to fame, the innovative esophageal procedure, was probably stolen or borrowed from a doctor practicing behind the Iron Curtain. It now bears the names of both men.
The Heimlich maneuver isn't the duct tape of the lifesaving world, and in some cases (like drowning, asthma, cystic fibrosis), it may have done more harm than good. Every doctor has to see death occasionally, but Heimlich may have wound up further from saving "more lives than any person living today" than he ever intended.
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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who is now questioning every CPR class he's ever taken. You can follow him on Twitter @nickaknock.