Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Heimlich’s effectiveness took awhile to catch on

I retired in 1972, having enjoyed many years of teaching aquatics at Columbia College, and hurried to do things I’d put aside until I retired. One weekend my now-late husband, Chub Gerard, and I toured beautiful Onondaga Cave.

As we came out of the darkness toward the cave entrance, I took an egg-size lump of dirt from the side of our path. It was moist red clay and as smooth as silk. As we drove home, I couldn’t watch the scenery because of fascination with the feel of the clay and the ease of shaping things. I shaped the clay into the head of an Indian, remembering that they used that cave and probably that clay. In a few weeks I was forming little clay figures and firing them in my "new" used kiln. I called my pioneer people "History in three dimensions."

While teaching aquatics, I learned the many ways early people devised to try to bring drowned people back to life. I made more than 30 clay figures of people attempting to get other people to breathe again and used them in teaching lifesaving and first aid. In prehistoric times some flailed non-breathers with a bundle of thorny briars; the Russians buried them in warm sand up to their necks; the Chinese immersed the bodies in hot oil. Because there are only three minutes between stoppage of breathing and the beginning of permanent brain damage, many techniques - such as the hot oil - were worthless - except to make the rescuers feel that they had tried.

Some techniques did save lives. Throwing a drowned man belly-down over the back of a horse and trotting the horse created pressure on the victim’s diaphragm similar to the Heimlich maneuver. The Heimlich maneuver has been used since 1974 on people who were choking and has saved the lives of millions of people.

We now think of drowning as "choking on water" and successfully use the technique to get the water out of drowning victims’ lungs and airways. It can be performed by one person without any equipment.

It can be done with the victim flat on his or her back or standing, as for choking, or standing in shallow water for swimming accidents. Small children and infants can be supine on an adult’s lap.

We now know that when people are choking on food or other foreign objects, slapping on the back is dangerous.

For 30 years, those of us who taught American Red Cross Life Saving and Standard First Aid followed the guidebooks. If we questioned the techniques, we didn’t speak out.

We didn’t hear Henry Heimlich, the retired thoracic surgeon, saying "the simple truth is that you can not get air into water-filled lungs." And we were ignorant of the fact that no reliable scientific study ever proved that mouth-to-mouth breathing was effective for drowning.

The Heimlich maneuver, used as the immediate treatment for people brought out of the water unconscious and not breathing, is praised by life guards. A five-year study of the results of 3,200 lifeguards proved that the Heimlich maneuver was the most effective "initial care" for drowning.

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