heimlich helper

The Heimlich Helper Sends the Wrong Message

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Imagine choking in a room full of doctors and nurses, most of them even wearing scrubs, and being cordially directed to a large blunt object hanging on the wall — oddly camouflaged by the wall, which is the same color — to self-administer short and quick abdominal thrusts, as you panic and gasp for what may be your final breaths, effective enough to displace the item of food lodged deep in your throat.

Well, that is essentially what I think of every time I pass the Heimlich Helper as I leave the cafeteria.

It's a good thing the Office of University Development are a sleek bunch, hosting big donor engagements far from the cafeteria. For Campus Life Services, the party who presumably is responsible for this bleak reminder that we are all one stubborn cherry-tomato away from transpiring on the floor, they are less acclimated to the nuances of optics and PR concerns.

It is the rest of us — the tired staff, the overwhelmed families of patients, a principal investigator starving from a grant who is the wrong kind of doctor — who must face their insecurities and wonder as to whether or not the dozen or so doctors nearby might give them a well-timed heave if it ever came down to it.

Henry Heimlich received his MD from Weill Cornell Medical College in 1943, then served in the US Navy in China during World War II, where he developed an innovative treatment for trachoma, an infection of the eyelids which led to blindness, by mixing shaving cream with antibiotics.

Having a knack for simple solutions for problems which eluded others, he first mentioned his eponymous maneuver in a 1974 article of Emergency Medicine. That very month, the procedure was used by a retired restaurant owner to save a choking victim. Soon after the maneuver was widely published and hence immortalized in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

UCSF’s mission is simple: Advancing Health Worldwide. To this, I might add: can we start of in the cafeteria on Parnassus? If Henry is rolling in his grave, we might have to join him, six feet under, too panic-stricken to properly use the unwieldly device on ourselves; or, an eager medical student, kind nurse, doctor — anyone with two arms and an open heart — can instill the values this world leading institution surely holds. Fingers crossed and leaning over.