Dr. Henry Heimlich and Being Someone's Angel

November 11, 2021

4 min read


Proactive step up and step in to make a difference in the lives of others.

Prior to 1974, the standard practice for dealing with someone who was choking was to whack the afflicted person on the back. Dr. Henry Heimlich argued hitting them that way can force the obstruction further into the gullet, rather than dislodge it. He worked on various theories attempting a better way before ultimately coming up with the technique of putting one’s arms around the person choking and exerting upward abdominal thrusts, just above the navel and below the ribs, with the linked hands in a fist, until the obstruction is dislodged.

Heimlich published preliminary findings from his experiments with anti-choking techniques in a US medical journal. Newspapers around the US quickly began picking up on examples where readers, including restaurant owners, had caught word of Heimlich’s article and had tried the maneuver on choking casualties, with successful results.

Word spread, and that summer the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial in which, with the surgeon’s permission, the technique was officially referred to for the first time as the “Heimlich Maneuver.” The technique became widely adopted nationally and internationally and today it appears on posters in most restaurants and is taught in many schools.

Despite introducing the technique, Heimlich had never actually used it the 42 years of its existence. In 2016, Dr. Heimlich was in the dining room of his retirement home in Cincinnati. A fellow resident at the next table began to choke. Without hesitation, Heimlich spun her around in her chair so he could get behind her and administered several upward thrusts with a fist below the chest until the piece of meat she was choking on popped out of her throat and she could breathe again.

Angels are not only in heaven. Sometimes they're made right here on earth.

At 96 years old, Dr. Henry Heimlich had finally executed the Heimlich maneuver to save a life. A short time later, the 87-year-old woman for whom Dr. Heimlich was an angel here on earth, wrote him a note saying she was so thankful that “God put me in this seat next to you.”

Angels are not only in heaven. Sometimes they're made right here on earth.

Bringing Down a Piece of Heaven

When we come through for others, when we ask how we can help, when we make the difference for them, we bring a piece of heaven down here to earth. Through our actions we build an actual stairway to heaven.

Being an angel requires proactively stepping up and stepping in to make a difference in the lives of others.

In July of 2017, Rosie Gagnon laced up her sneakers for her daily run around the hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah County. When Rosie hit mile six of eight, the water she’d packed along was gone and her face was bright red. As she passed by one particular home, a man pulling down the driveway stopped and poked his head out the window. He offered her a bottle of water and it was exactly what she needed. He then asked her if she was the one he sees running past his house every day. She answered yes.

The next day on her run at mile six out of eight again, there was a cold bottle waiting for her on a green telephone box at the edge of the road. And then again the next day, and the day after that. Six months after leaving water each day she runs, Rosie was interviewed. She explained that she packs along her own water, of course, but it never lasts as long as she needs. But there, with a huge hill looming in her final stretch, she always knows there’s help ahead.

There are countless stories of humans ascending and descending the stairway to heaven to be someone else’s angel. Twenty-two years after inventing his technique, at 96 years old, Dr. Henry Heimlich became that choking woman’s angel. When Rosie Gagnon had to face the daily run up a steep hill, Bruce Riffey was her angel who put out water that gave her the encouragement to make the climb.

There are people all around us who are choking on life, facing steep uphill climbs, or stuck on the proverbial side of the road. They are struggling emotionally, financially, with loneliness or in despair. Say hello, give the benefit of the doubt, offer a kind word or a kind gesture. You might be somebody’s only angel of the day, their gift straight from heaven.

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