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Commentary: What could go wrong at a luncheon?

Do you know the Heimlich Maneuver? It could save a life when gathering for meals, where seniors and children are especially vulnerable to choking.
It's important to know how to help someone who is choking, reminds health columnist. Photo submitted.

The immortal Shakespeare wrote in the play Macbeth, “Each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face.” He was not wrong.

Readers may wonder how I am faring as I near the start of my 99th year. I am glad to report, while getting older is rarely much fun, my medical training remains useful!

At a holiday luncheon with long-in-the-tooth friends, one started to cough. It was nothing to attract attention. But the situation suddenly changed. His coughing became intense and breathing more difficult. Food had become stuck in his throat, probably lethally so.

I knew what I had to do.

As a surgeon, I’ve faced many crises: heart attacks, strokes, and other life-or-death situations. But during my long life, I have never had to help someone choking on food. It’s frightening when it happens.

I have practiced what’s known as the Heimlich Maneuver on dummy equipment. Now it was the real thing. I rushed to start this life-saving procedure on my friend, who was now struggling to breathe, and unable to speak.

If readers encounter this situation, keep calm and asked someone to call for medical help. From behind the choking person, wrap both your arms around the patient’s abdomen halfway between the navel and the lower ribs. Make a fist with one hand and place your other hand firmly around your fist. Then thrust both hands in quick jerks inwards and upwards into the abdomen five times. Hopefully this will dislodge the food. But if it does not, repeat the maneuver.

Every year, about 5,000 people die in North America from choking on food. More than two-thirds of victims are over the age of 74. Many people choking on food rush to the bathroom where someone later finds they’ve died.

If you are alone and choking, you can perform the Heimlich on yourself. Place a fist above the navel, grab your fist with the other hand, and use the weight of your body over a chair or table to help thrust your fist inward and upward.

Thanks should go to the late Dr. Henry J Heimlich. He was a Cincinnati chest surgeon who practiced first on beagle dogs to develop the procedure.

Fortunately, my efforts were successful, and my friend survived.

You might think it remarkable that at my age I can perform the move. But I am in good company, as Dr. Heimlich himself also performed the maneuver at the age of 96 on an 87-year-old woman, saving her life.

The universal sign for choking is hands clutched to the throat. If you are not sure if someone is choking, and they don’t give the signal, look for the inability to speak, noisy or squeaking sounds in breathing, weak or strong cough, and skin, lips, or nails turning blue.

The best form of prevention is to chew food slowly and well. Avoid common choking hazards for seniors, such as dry food like crackers, rice cakes, popcorn, and bread, especially with peanut butter or other sticky spreads. Older people often use hard candies to generate saliva, but this is very risky.

Prevention of choking among infants and young children requires extreme vigilance. Keep small items out of their reach. On children, too, the Heimlich is possible, but the first step should be to call for emergency assistance and stay calm in providing details so that experts can give optimal instructions until help arrives.

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