December 2016    
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Henry Heimlich, MD: Simply Genius


Throughout Dr. Henry Heimlich's seventy-year career, he was dedicated to finding simple solutions to complex problems affecting human health. History will remember him as the most impactful medical pioneer of the 20th century. He passed away this month, December 17, 2016, at age 96. Norman Vincent Peale, famed proponent of The Power of Positive Thinking, recognized that Dr. Heimlich "saved the lives of more human beings than any other person living today." Credit for his humanitarian work is largely due to his invention of the Heimlich Maneuver for choking and near drowning victims, and the Heimlich Chest Valve for treating open chest wounds, most frequently occurring on war-torn battlefields.


A Life of Dispute for Providing Correct Information


Heimlich's life was surrounded by controversy, especially from 1976 to 1985 when his staunch disagreements with the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross were well publicized. Both of these organizations taught rescuers to first perform a series of "back blows" to remove a "foreign body airway obstruction." Unfortunately, back blows, which are still being recommended by these organizations, cause the breath-stopping materials to become more deeply lodged in the throat and forced further down into the windpipe (trachea).


Henry Heimlich appeared on my syndicated TV show, McDougall, MD in 1999.

(Mary McDonough, my co-host, is remembered for her role in the TV show, The Waltons.)


Until recently the Heimlich Maneuver was also taught to lifeguards and the public as the first-line treatment in near drowning. To save a life water must first be removed from the lungs, which is accomplished by the Maneuver. Obviously, CPR or any other forced respiratory effort cannot move air into water-filled lungs. Unfortunately, since 2005 the drowning rescue guidelines of the American Heart Association do not include citations of Heimlich's work, and warn against the use of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning rescue as unproven and dangerous due to its risk of vomiting, leading to aspiration. Heimlich vehemently (and correctly) disagrees.


I asked Dr. Heimlich why there was so much heated opposition to his cost-free, non-invasive, highly effective Maneuver, which requires nothing more than simple instructions and the strength of the rescuer's arms? He explained to me that accepting the Heimlich approach would make them (the AHA and Red Cross) admit that their recommendation for back blows was useless and actually dangerous. In my opinion (Dr. McDougall), this case is an instructive example of egos harming the public—a problem shared with most other medically accepted treatments that are used every day, related to heart surgery, cancer, and diabetes. Money, of course, is the primary motivation for wrongdoers. To learn more about Dr. Heimlich, read my July/August 1998 interview and listen to my 1991 radio interview with him.

Dr. Heimlich Attends The McDougall Program


One of my greatest honors in life was when the man who saved so many human lives came to me for help after becoming ill. Dr. Henry Heimlich attended the McDougall Program at St. Helena Hospital in Napa Valley, California from April 26, 1992 to May 8,1992. The McDougall Program, I believe, contributed positively to the great health he experienced during the following 25 years of his life.


In the course of our friendship he passed on to me many words of wisdom. For example, at this time in 1992, I was considering doing an infomercial to sell my ideas. The product to be sold was a cassette of audiotapes and several small books advertised in a half-hour TV show. But I hesitated, feeling that such a commercial venture by a respectable physician would be too unconventional. Back then any public advertising by physicians and hospitals was considered unethical. I wondered if doing an infomercial would ruin my reputation (as if most of my colleagues had any respect for me then or now).


I discussed this dilemma with Dr. Heimlich. His response was: "John, you will have to run around them (referring to my colleagues) because they are never going to give you the stage." That advice sent me on to produce the 12th most successful infomercial at that time.


The world has lost a pioneer and I have lost a mentor and friend. Even though in the US, political forces have attempted to minimize Dr. Heimlich's, cost-free, profit-free, lifesaving methods and diminish his reputation, most countries still teach the Heimlich Maneuver as true First-Aid and the most effective means to save lives.


A Brief Record of Dr. Heimlich's Contributions

During World War II Dr. Heimlich developed an effective treatment for trachoma victims (a previously incurable infection of the eye that can lead to blindness).


In 1957, he performed the reversed gastric tube operation, the "Heimlich Operation," which replaces a damaged or defective esophagus using a tube made from the patient's stomach, making it possible for people with severe esophageal damage to swallow food.


In 1968, he designed a flutter valve, the "Heimlich Chest Drain Valve," used worldwide mostly for military soldiers shot in the chest. More than four million Heimlich Chest Drain Valves have been sold. This valve is similar to the "fart whistles" my grandchildren play with. Once the Heimlich Valve is inserted through the chest wall, air goes out the rubber flapper valve with each breath; the rubber valve then collapses, allowing for inflation of the lungs. Its simplicity allows an immediate lifesaving remedy to be performed on the battlefield, far from any hospital.
In 1974, he developed a method that allowed air trapped in the lungs to be used to expel an object from the victim's airway—a method that came to be known as the "Heimlich Maneuver." At that time nearly 4,000 Americans died annually from choking on food, a condition labeled a "café coronary" because it was due, in most cases, to meat becoming lodged in the airway. The Maneuver has saved countless lives, including celebrities such as President Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Goldie Hawn, Jack Lemmon, Cher, Nicole Kidman, and Halle Berry, sportscaster Dick Vitale, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, and news anchorman John Chancellor. Conservative estimates are that at least 100,000 people in the United States alone have been saved by this simple procedure. In 2003 Dr. Heimlich used his famous maneuver for the first time on a man choking in a restaurant. The second time was on May 23, 2016, almost 42 years after his work was published, when he successfully performed his Maneuver on a fellow resident of his senior living community in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Maneuver is also essential for removing water from the lungs of a drowning victim.


In 1980, Dr. Heimlich invented the "MicroTrach," a portable oxygen delivery system.


In the April 26, 1990 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine he recommended "malariotherapy" for incurable patients, such as those with late-stage Lyme disease. In order to create a heightened immune system response, patients were deliberately infected with an easily curable form of malaria. Preliminary research was also done with HIV and cancer patients. Whether or not this approach is effective will likely never be known because it competes with highly profitable standard medical treatments.



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