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Dr. Heimlich’s final maneuver: detailing his controversial life

New autobiography of Dr. Henry HeimlichJohn Johnston

One of the few doctors in America who is a household name, Dr. Henry Heimlich—who just turned 94—is not without his share of controversy. Here are a few things I learned from reading his new autobiography, Heimlich’s Maneuvers that goes on sale next week: He first tested his famous choking maneuver on dogs; he invented a chest drain valve nearly 50 years ago that’s still used to treat a collapsed lung; he worked for free as a surgical intern at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center) before being shipped off to China near the end of World War II.

He’s been called a “fraud” by his son Peter and criticized by many in the medical community for conducting studies on HIV patients in China—which were banned in the U.S.—that involved infecting them with malaria to cure the disease. The technique called malariotherapy was used decades ago to treat syphilis but fell out of use because too many patients were dying of malaria infections.

He also told me what he hopes his obituary will say when I spoke with him by phone this week from his home in Cincinnati; here are edited excerpts from our interview.

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Q. Why did you decide to write this book now?

A. I wanted to get my thoughts out there to talk about how fond I became of China, of the Chinese people, after I spent the war there in a medical clinic in the Gobi Desert. My feeling is that if the US and China could come together and help all the other smaller countries, we would have a happy world.

I also wanted to discuss my role in surgical advances like inventing the chest drain valve and an operation to fix the digestive tract when the esophagus is damaged beyond repair from cancer or accidental poisonings. I found out that bringing the gastric tube in the stomach could be fitted into a new esophagus and attached to the remaining pharynx so patients could eat again.

Q. What should the headline on your obituary read?

A. I would love to quote Norman Vincent Peale, a famous minister who had a weekly radio program. He once said “Henry Heimlich saved the lives of more human beings than any other person living today.” That would be a nice headline.

Q. Why did you spread the word about using the Heimlich maneuver for choking through the media instead of publishing your research on it?

A. I thought about writing a medical article, but if I waited for that to be published and for doctors to recommend it to patients to prevent choking to death, I knew it would take months or years for the word to spread. I did something fun, and I had a well-known medical journalist describe my dog study in a 1974 syndicated column picked up by hundreds of newspapers all around the country. A week later, an article appeared in the Seattle Times describing a man who tried the maneuver after reading about it, and he saved the life of his neighbor who was choking on a large piece of chicken.

Q. How would you like to respond to people, including your son Peter, who have called you a quack for some of the treatments you have proposed like using malaria to treat chronic Lyme disease and HIV?

A. I don’t want to bring my son into it. I guess it’s as much jealousy as anything that drives the others. I try not to waste time on these personal attacks. There was research in the 1920s conducted by Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg showing that fevers induced by treatable malaria infections could cure the psychosis caused by syphilis. He won the Nobel Prize for this work.

We did some research in China on HIV patients, because we weren’t allowed to conduct studies here in America, and published it in a Chinese medical journal in 1999, but the work stalled. I think it’s still worth researching to see if it works for other diseases.

Q. The American Red Cross instructs its lifeguards not to use the Heimlich maneuver on drowning victims, but you still insist it works. Why?

A. I did not devise it for drowning, but I have a list of cases from lifeguards who told me they’ve saved people’s lives using it. It also makes sense to me as a thoracic surgeon. You need to get water out of the lung if someone isn’t breathing before you do chest compressions or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Otherwise, they’re going to die. (Editor’s note: A scientific review conducted by the Red Cross concluded that water does not enter the lungs when a person is drowning because the larynx closes and blocks water from entering the windpipe.)

Q. If you were going into medicine today, would you still choose thoracic surgery?

A. I don’t know what I would go into, but I chose thoracic surgery at the time because it was so new. I’d probably want to go into a field where I could develop innovations, but I’m not sure which specialty today holds the most potential for that.

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the name of the book. The post was also clarified to point out that the malariotherapy experiments were banned in the United States and that the Red Cross conducted a scientific review, which determined that water does not enter the lungs of a drowning victim.

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