A stranger once stopped by the table where I was working with clay and asked, "What are you making?" I said, "I’m making a fellow doing artificial respiration on a person who is apparently drowned. I’m teaching first aid and life saving and ... " The woman became very excited.
"Oh you just must make the thing that happened to my father-in-law 70 years ago in Ireland."
I put my tools down and listened. When her husband’s father was a boy, he drowned in a canal and couldn’t be revived. A bystander threw the boy over his shoulder and ran, taking him to his home. When he put the "body" down at the mother’s feet, the boy was breathing! He lived at least 75 more years!
Later when I formed that Irish incident in clay, I realized that there was a striking similarity of that incident to Dr. Henry J. Heimlich’s maneuver for drowning. Of course, bouncing the victim along on a shoulder is not a recommended way to revive drowning victims; however, the position of the boy, the pressure of the boy’s abdomen on the man’s shoulder and the head hanging low all helped expel the water from the boy’s windpipe, lungs and stomach. The Heimlich does those things most effectively! It’s likely that the bouncing also helped to stimulate the boy’s natural breathing.
Instructions for performing artificial respiration usually include the information that clearing the breathing passages is important in reviving those who are nearly drowned; air cannot go in if water is blocking the tubes. It follows that forcing air in forces water into those tubes in the wrong direction. The Heimlich maneuver for drowning forces the water out in the same way it forces a chunk of food out of a choking victim’s throat. Heimlich, 80, a retired thoracic surgeon, waits patiently for an upcoming report that will prove what he has said all along: "You cannot get air into water-filled lungs."
Here’s how to do the Heimlich for drowning: Place the person on his back on the floor or beach with his head turned to one side so fluids can flow out of the mouth. Quickly straddle one or both thighs and place the heel of one hand on the victim’s abdomen slightly above the navel and below the rib cage. Now put the second hand over the first and give several quick powerful thrusts forward. An infant patient would rest face up on the rescuer’s lap, the child’s head low at the rescuer’s knees, and the thrusts would be delivered by two fingers, the index and middle fingers.
It’s expected that, next spring, Heimlich will proudly point to a sharp downturn in drownings, brought to light by a five-year study. Jeff Ellis and Associates, the world’s largest private lifeguard training firm, will report that the mortality rate from drowning dropped sharply when lifeguards used the Heimlich maneuver before or instead of CPR for drowning victims.
In 1903 in Scotland, Dr. Edward Sharpey Schafer repeatedly asserted that the "piston-like action of the diaphragm is more important than the compression and expansion of the ribs in the chest wall." That’s not too different from the Heimlich, is it? At least it worked for the little fellow in Flint, Mich., and for the boy on the man’s shoulder in Ireland two generations ago.