Dr Heimlich, Whose Maneuver Saved Thousands, Dies at 96

December 17, 2016

Henry Heimlich, MD, a thoracic surgeon who invented an anti-choking maneuver that saved an untold number of lives, died today at age 96 of complications from a heart attack earlier in the week.

The maneuver that bears his name made Dr Heimlich a celebrity. However, he left his mark with other innovations, such as the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, credited with saving thousands of US soldiers shot in the chest. He also developed the Micro-Trach, which delivers oxygen into the lungs through a narrow breathing tube inserted into the trachea.

Some of his medical ideas later in life, however, earned him not-so-positive press.

Dr Heimlich put the number of people saved from choking to death by the Heimlich maneuver, introduced in 1974, as high as 100,000. It is performed by wrapping one's arms around the victim's waist, placing a fist thumbside just under the ribcage and between the lungs, and thrusting it upward to dislodge an airway obstruction with a burst of expelled air. A rollcall of celebrities who underwent the maneuver include President Ronald Reagan, Cher, Halle Berry, Carrie Fisher, Nicole Kidman, and TV journalist John Chancellor, according to the physician's website.

On Twitter today, noncelebrities gave testimonials about Dr Heimlich's first-aid technique. "Thank you for saving my daughter's life," tweeted Carla Behr. And Lycia Faith tweeted, "His maneuver has saved my life multiple times, & I've saved my best friend (because) of it. #RIP."

Dr Heimlich applied his technique just last May on a choking woman at a Cincinnati retirement center where they both lived. News accounts described it as the first time that he had performed his maneuver, but in 2003, the BBC quoted him as saying that the first time he did it was 3 years earlier, in a restaurant.

Late in his career, Dr Heimlich became embroiled in controversy when he advocated injecting a curable form of malaria in patients with HIV to induce fevers and stimulate their immune systems to fight the other infection. He directed clinical trials in Mexico, China, and other countries, but not in the United States, because they never would have been permitted here, Reuters reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a dim view of so-called malariotherapy, stating in 1993 that "without evidence — either in-vitro or in-vivo — to support the hypothesis that malaria suppresses HIV infection or delays the development of AIDS, the use of induced malaria infection in HIV-infected individuals cannot be justified."

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Dr Heimlich received his medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College in 1943. He and his late wife Jane Murray, daughter of dance school operator Arthur Murray, had four children.

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert

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