The History of the Heimlich Manoeuvre – How one Man and his Dog Helped Save Thousands!
With the Heimlich manoeuvre (abdominal thrusts) being a vital lifesaving technique that is taught on most first aid courses, you would probably think that it had been around for centuries. However, did you know that research into this manoeuvre only started in the early 1970s? With us sadly losing the inventor of this lifesaving technique, Dr. Heimlich, last December, we thought you might like to know a bit more about the fascinating story behind the development of the Heimlich manoeuvre and how this technique has helped save countless lives. In June 1972, Dr. Henry Heimlich was reading the New York Times Magazine when he stumbled across an article stating that choking caused nearly 4,000 deaths in the US each year. Startled by this figure, the Cincinnati surgeon decided that there must be a better solution than giving back blows to a casualty, which medical journals at the time suggested (though this has since been disproved) drove the obstruction down and lodged it more tightly in the airway. With this in mind, Heimlich set out to discover a method to try and push the obstruction upwards rather than downwards. He began by experimenting on an anaesthetised beagle, placing a tube down its throat with an inflated balloon on the end to act as an obstruction. Initially, he tried pushing down on the dog’s chest, however, he soon realised that the pressure to the lungs was significantly reduced by the ribcage, leaving the obstruction in place.
This got him thinking ‘what about the diaphragm, if I push the diaphragm upward into the chest that would create a ‘bellows’ effect and force the air from the lungs upward’. He instantly turned back to his canine patient, placed his fists on the dog’s belly and pushed the diaphragm upward into the chest, and much to his amazement the tube shot out from the dog’s mouth!
Dr Heimlich’s next challenge was to create a simple manoeuvre that could be easily practised by the general public instead of just healthcare professionals. Initial tests included holding a casualty against the wall and pushing against their upper abdomen before laying them on the floor to do the same. However, it was the familiar movement of putting the arms
around the casualty from behind to administer the abdominal thrust that was decided as the best option.
Ready to publish his ground-breaking findings to a much wider audience, Heimlich approached the Emergency Medicine magazine and his first ever article ‘Pop Goes the Café Coronary’ was published in 1974 along with a follow up column from a Chicago Daily News medical reporter. The results were immediate, as just one short week later, a Seattle newspaper reported on how a holidaymaker started to choke on her food, but her life was saved by successful administration of the first ever Heimlich Manoeuvre! After several similar lifesaving reports, in October 1975, Dr Heimlich was asked to write an article for the Journal American Medical Association detailing his discovery, and by 1976 the Heimlich manoeuvre began to be included in First Aid booklets and training courses.
Jumping forward to May 2016, the man who gave his name to this simple but dramatic procedure, used it himself to save someone’s life for the very first time aged 96. After noticing his neighbour choking on her food, without any hesitation, he spun her around and immediately placed his clenched fist below the ribcage and administered several upwards thrusts until the lodged object flew out of her throat. So there you have it. In the 43 years since the Heimlich manoeuvre was first invented it has helped save countless lives all over the world, including President Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and Carrie Fisher to name a few. Whilst the terminology for this manoeuvre now has a more instructive name, the main aim of helping to save lives still remains the same. So, if you are fortunate enough to save a choking casualty’s life, remember to spare a thought for Dr. Henry Heimlich and his services