Henry Jay Heimlich Biography (1920-)

surgeon, inventor

Henry Jay Heimlich has achieved wide recognition for the Heimlich maneuver, a lifesaving squeeze that has replaced the backslap as a remedy for choking and is responsible for the saving of thousands of lives. Among his otherinnovations are a surgical procedure for replacing a damaged esophagus by using a flap from the patient's stomach, a simple emergency chest drainage device for victims of chest wounds, and a long-lasting portable oxygen tank to enhance mobility for victims of chronic lung disease. His publications includea home guidebook to emergency medicine, and he is a frequent and popular lecturer on medical topics. His public visibility, which began with his development of the Heimlich maneuver, has been heightened by his television appearances and an award-winning television series in which a cartoon Dr. Heimlich teaches first aid to children. He has also produced instructional videos. Heimlich directs the Heimlich Research Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, where a staffof volunteers aids him in a range of activities, including work on malariotherapy and promotion of Computers for Peace, an international program aimed atpreventing war.

Heimlich was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on February 3, 1920, to Philip andMary Epstein Heimlich. The elder Heimlich was a prison social worker, and asa child Henry accompanied his father on visits to all of New York State's prisons. Heimlich received a bachelor's degree in 1941 from Cornell University,and an M.D. degree in 1943 from Cornell's medical school. His internship atBoston City Hospital was interrupted in 1944 by his entry into the U.S. Navy.During World War II he served as a surgeon in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia, as part of America's program to forge alliances with the Chinese Nationalists. After the war Heimlich spent four years as a surgical resident at theVeterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx (1946-47), Mount Sinai (1947-48) and Bellevue (1948-49) hospitals in New York City, and Triboro Hospital inJamaica (1949-50). In 1950 he became attending surgeon at Montefiore Hospitalin New York City, where he remained through 1969, acting also as assistant clinical professor of surgery at New York Medical College. Heimlich served onthe board of the National Cancer Foundation from 1960 to 1970, and was president for five of those years. In the mid-1960s he was also president of CancerCare, and in 1965 was a member of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke.

Heimlich's first medical innovation devised in 1950, was a procedure for gastric tube esophagoplasty, constructing a new esophagus from a section of the patient's stomach. Having first proposed the idea to the chief of surgery at Montefiore to no effect, Heimlich negotiated a small grant and laboratory space at New York Medical College, and tried the procedure on dogs. Although interest in the procedure lagged in the United States, Heimlich's work came to the attention of Dan Gavriliu, a surgeon in Bucharest, Romania, who had been performing a similar procedure on humans. Heimlich conferred with the Romaniansurgeon and tried the operation on U.S. patients in 1956. It has since becomea standard surgical practice.

Heimlich's emergency chest drainage device for use with victims of chest injury was inspired by his World War II experiences. Heimlich's small unit used aflutter valve from a "Bronx cheer" noisemaker to prevent backflow of fluids.He tested it successfully with a hospital patient who was also hooked up tothe conventional electrical suction device. The Heimlich chest drainage valvewas widely used in Vietnam and is common in emergency facilities.

In 1969 Heimlich became director of surgery at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati, Ohio. At about that time he began thinking about a treatment for choking, which was the sixth most common cause of accidental deaths in the United States, responsible for about four thousand deaths annually. Heimlich was aware that a hard slap on the back meant to aid a choking victim could easily lodge an obstruction more firmly. As a chest surgeon, Heimlich was also aware of the reserve volume of air that stays in the lungs after exhalation, and he reasoned that this reserve could be used to help expel an object. He tested his ideas on laboratory dogs. He closed off the upper end of an endotracheal tube and put it down the throat of an anesthetized dog; when he compressed the air in the dog's chest, the tube was forced out of the dog's airway. Heimlich found the best results were obtained by a subdiaphragmatic thrust, pushing up suddenly on the soft tissue under the diaphragm. When the technique is applied to humans, a rescuer stands behind the choking victim, wraps his arms around the victim's waist, makes a fist with one hand (thumb side in) andgrasps it with the other hand, then gives a quick upward thrust. If a chokingvictim is lying unconscious, the diaphragm may be compressed by the heel ofthe rescuer's hand.

In 1974 Heimlich published his study in Emergency Medicine. He also brought the article to the attention of the press, and references to it began to appear in newspapers nationwide. A week later, the Seattle Times reported that a seventy-year-old restaurateur had saved the life of his neighbor's wife using Heimlich's technique. Many similar stories followed, includingcases of children successfully performing the maneuver, and Heimlich was thrust into the national limelight. Heimlich has also defined the symptoms of choking--inability to speak or breathe, pallor followed by bluish skin color, and finally, loss of consciousness and collapse. He has publicized the fact that choking is often mistaken for a heart attack--the so-called café coronary. In 1975 the Heimlich maneuver was endorsed by the emergency medical services division of the American Medical Association. It was later recommended by the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association,who in addition advised its use with drowning victims. Deaths from choking declined dramatically following widespread publicity about the Heimlich maneuver, and in 1984 Heimlich was recognized with the Albert Lasker Public ServiceAward.

In 1977 Heimlich became professor of advanced clinical sciences at Xavier University in Cincinnati. There he established the Heimlich Institute to continue work on innovations such as a portable oxygen system, the Micro-Trach. He is the founder and president of the Dysphagia Foundation, and has developed techniques for teaching stroke victims how to swallow. With the philosophy thatelimination of war will promote the well-being of the largest number of people, Heimlich has developed Computers for Peace, a program that uses computerprojections to show that the benefits of trade among hostile nations are so great it is against the self-interest of nations to go to war.

In 1985 he received a research grant from the Fannie L. Rippel Foundation tostudy the effects of malariotherapy, a new treatment against cancer. Heat was known to kill cancer cells, and Heimlich reasoned that the fevers ofmalaria may be useful in the treatment of cancer. When a cancer patient is deliberately infected with malaria, the resulting fever combats the cancer cells. Once the cancer is under control, drugs can be used to eradicate the malaria organism. The idea is not new; a similar procedure was used in the1920s against syphilis. Heimlich has also advocated malariotherapy fortreatment of Lyme disease, which like syphilis, is caused by a spirochete and has similar clinical manifestations.

Heimlich's projects are diverse, some are deceptively simple, and many have been controversial. "You're not being original if all your peers agree with what you're doing," he told an Omni interviewer in 1983. Heimlich is theauthor of many scientific and popular articles, and has used television to increase his audience. "I can do more toward saving lives in three minutes ontelevision than I could do all my life in the operating room," he told Omni. Heimlich's television series for children, "Dr. Henry's Emergency Lessons for People," won an Emmy Award in 1980. Also in 1980, Heimlich publishedDr. Heimlich's Home Guide to Emergency Medical Situations, and was named as one of the top ten speakers in the country by the International Platform Association. In 1984 he was honored by the Chinese ministry of health for his World War II service.

He married Jane Murray, daughter of dance studio personalities Arthur and Katherine Murray, on June 3, 1951; they have four children: Philip, Peter, and Janet and Elizabeth (twins).

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