Heimlich Maneuver Doesn’t Hold Water

By Natalie Gagliordi

Over the last two decades, many Americans have come to recognize the household name of Dr. Henry Heimlich and his famous maneuver to save choking victims. However, many people outside of the medical community have not yet realized the dark cloud hanging over his legacy.
Over the course of the last 30 years, Dr. Heimlich has promoted his maneuver (which uses abdominal thrusts to expel foreign bodies blocking the airway) to be used as a first rescue response for not only choking victims, but also drowning victims. The only problem, nearly every medical expert on drowning has disagreed with his claims. Dr. James Orlowski, chief of pediatrics at University Community Hospital (UCH), has been one of the major players in this controversy since the beginning.
Before coming to Tampa and joining the staff at UCH, Orlowski spent 19 years as a resident at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. It was there that he first took notice to the actions of Henry Heimlich.
“I started doing drowning research in high school when I wrote my first abstract paper on the subject,” Orlowski said. “I had always respected Dr. Heimlich for his work on choking, but his explanations for drowning defied scientific knowledge.”
In 1987, Orlowski published an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) documenting the case of a young drowning victim. The boy was submerged under water for one to two minutes and then given the Heimlich maneuver as a first response upon rescue, rather than CPR.
“This should have been a routine resuscitation,” Orlowski said. “But instead the boy aspirated on his own vomit, fell into a coma and died seven years later.”
According to Orlowski, he has collected over 30 cases in which the Heimlich maneuver was a hindrance in drowning rescue.
Much of the controversy that evolved out of Dr. Heimlich’s claims has thickened since 2002, when Dr. Heimlich’s son, Peter (here on referred to as Heimlich), and his wife Karen began to unearth years of medical fraud.
“Experts were never impressed with my father’s evidence, but until we came along no one took a close look at the facts of the cases,” Heimlich said. “We investigated and came to the conclusion that they’re dubious at best, fraud at worst.”
After realizing that they had stumbled onto something serious, Heimlich and his wife felt compelled to act.
“People trust my father because the maneuver has saved the lives of many choking victims,” Heimlich said. “When he tells them to do it on drowning victims, they don’t realize he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that if they follow his advice they might kill somebody. We didn’t want anyone to be hurt, so we decided to make as much noise as possible.”
So, if using the Heimlich maneuver for drowning rescue is clearly dangerous, how was the good doctor able to work his way to the heights of the medical community, demanding they accept his maneuver?
According to Orlowski, Dr. Heimlich was a “very charismatic and dynamic individual,” and he was able to influence people because of it, using the media as his most efficient tool.
However, when dealing with his fellow doctors who disagreed with his drowning theory, Dr. Heimlich lost some of his charisma.
“Most people don’t know that my father cultivated a reputation in the medical profession as someone who would relentlessly attack other doctors,” Heimlich said. “He’d write letters to people’s bosses demanding they be fired and would hint at pending lawsuits. When confronted with that kind of behavior, most people prefer to stay out of the line of fire.”
After writing directly to Dr. Heimlich and publishing his article in JAMA, Orlowski witnessed the wrath first hand.
He began accusing me of all kinds of unethical behavior,” Orlowski said. “Basically he tried to make my life as miserable as possible.”
Orlowski remained steady regardless of the attacks, and according to Heimlich, he has been the most consistent and forthright opponent of the maneuver for drowning rescue.
“He did the right thing, which was to protect the public and to defend the scientific record,” Heimlich said. “The public may not know it, but we all owe him a debt of thanks. He may have saved a lot of lives.”


3 Responses to “Heimlich Maneuver Doesn’t Hold Water”

  1. usfadvancedreporting Says:

    This story is very captivating. I had no previous knowledge of the history of the Heimlich maneuver. Very good reporting. I can tell that you put in a lot of leg work for this story.

  2. usfadvancedreporting Says:

    Wow, you actually got to speak to the Heimlichs? Thats great. How did you come up with this story?

  3. usfadvancedreporting Says:

    I’m in awe right now on how great this story is! I feel that this should be published in a publication. It’s very interesting….GOOD JOB! =)

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