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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

RSJ 4 Heimlich 1

July 19, 2016

Dr. Henry Heimlich performed his famous life-saving maneuver for the first time when he was 96-years old.

When I learned about that a few weeks ago the news took me aback. I had assumed that the creator of this often-used maneuver would have been a pro at it. As it stands, I am almost an expert on the technique at this point, and the man for whom it is named is a mere novice.

I have been involved in four instances where the Heimlich maneuver was employed— I once used it on a dining patron in a restaurant where I was a server, another time I delivered the maneuver to a lady during one of my speeches. One of my chefs had to give it to me a couple of decades ago, and the first time I ever administered the move, it was to myself as a 19-year old. I have a long and storied history with the Heimlich.

I suffer from Pseudodysphagia. I don’t know how to pronounce it, but it’s a fear of choking. I have it. It is real, and considering my history, it is probably understandable.

On my first encounter with the Heimlich maneuver, I was alone in my college apartment. I had been playing the guitar and was lying on the bed, daydreaming, and using my tongue to twirl the guitar pick inside my mouth. I took a deep breath and the flimsy guitar pick lodged in the back of my throat. I could draw no air into my lungs. None. Panic set in. I wondered if I should start knocking on the wall so the next door neighbor could come help me, but I wasn’t even sure if he was home, and if so, would he even know what the knocking was about?

I remembered seeing a doctor on the Tonight Show demonstrating a method he invented that was a better solution to dislodge a food item on choking victims. The doctor grabbed Johnny Carson from behind, and with hands clasped put a thumb knuckle to the abdomen just below the ribcage and squeezed in an upward motion.

In that apartment I tried it on myself, to no avail. I couldn’t get the necessary leverage, the panic increased. The feeling of not being able to get any air into your system is terrifying. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Then I placed my abdomen on the newel post of the bed and pressed forward, hard. The pick dislodged.

Kudos to Johnny Carson for the assist. Before the Heimlich maneuver was discovered, people just slapped choking victims on the back, which sometimes worsened the situation.

A couple of years later I was working as a server in a restaurant while in college. I walked back into my section and a man at one of my tables was lying on the ground. A crowd was hovering around him. An ophthalmologist was attending to him saying, “Back up, he’s having a heart attack!”

In that instant I remembered a former girlfriend’s father, a surgeon, who once told me that during his heart attack he was able to communicate to the medics. “When you’re having a heart attack you can speak,” he said. “When someone is choking they can’t speak.”

The man on the floor wasn’t speaking and he was turning blue. In that instant I remembered my girlfriend’s father’s words. I pulled the man up and said, “He’s choking!” The people gathered around looked at me like I was crazy. What did this kid know; the doctor said he was having a heart attack. I didn’t waiver. I brought him to his feet and— for the first time ever on a human being— I employed the Heimlich maneuver. In an instant a small piece of fried shrimp popped out onto the table.

The assist goes to my ex-girlfriend’s dad for that one.

In the mid 1990s, I was snacking on a bowl of peanuts in the bar area at one of our restaurants when a small piece became lodged in my airway. Absolutely no air was able to pass through my windpipe. That same panic from the guitar-pick incident years earlier began to set in. I walked into the kitchen for two reasons: 1.) I knew one of my chefs would be strong enough to do the Heimlich on me. 2.) If was going to turn blue, fall out, and die in my restaurant, I didn’t want to do it in front of paying customers.

As soon as I entered the kitchen one of my managers looked at my face and screamed, “My God, he’s choking!” That actually scared me more than the lack of air. I must have been Barney-the Dinosaur purple by that time. In an instant, Chef Undrell Covington ran over and delivered the Heimlich. He saved my life. He still works there. He probably always will.

A million thanks to Undrell Covington.

The fourth, and hopefully final, encounter with the Heimlich was during a speech I was delivering at a ladies luncheon. A lady began choking and panic ensued. She was seated next to her daughter. I ran from behind the podium, and while the woman was still seated (an incorrect method by the way), I performed the maneuver and was pretty sure that I saw something pop out. The ladies still thought she was choking and their horror ratcheted up a notch. What some of them didn’t know is that the throat constricts in those situations, muscles tighten, the airway narrows, and speech is impeded. As hard as it is to do, the more one relaxes, the more air they are able to get into their lungs.

The ladies were still screaming that she was still choking. I wrapped my arms around her for a third time, and the lady— tired of being bear hugged— swatted me away.

If the Butterfly Effect was in play, I would look back to the time when I saw Dr. Heimlich on the Tonight Show. Had I gone to the kitchen for a snack during that segment, and not known how to deliver the Heimlich to myself that first time, well, all I can say is that it’s been a wonderful life ever since.

Author’s Note— This column is not an official instruction guide on how to employ the Heimlich maneuver, a life-saving maneuver EVERYONE should know how to perform. Please search YouTube for “Heimlich Maneuver” to learn the proper technique.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef, and author. Follow him on Twitter @robertstjohn


Roasted Garlic New Potatoes

2 1 /2 lbs                        New red potatoes, small

3 quarts                          Chicken broth

1 stick                             Butter

1/4 cup                          Roasted Garlic Puree

1/3 cup                          Parsley, freshly chopped

1 tsp                               Salt

1 tsp                               Black Pepper, fresh ground

Wash the potatoes thoroughly. Using a pairing knife, cut a strip around the outside of the potato. Place potatoes in a large stockpot. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook at a low simmer for 20-30 minutes, until potatoes are fork tender. Drain potatoes. Place hot potatoes in a large skillet with all of the ingredients except the parsley. Simmer over medium heat stirring gently. Cook 10-12 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve.

Note- New potatoes should be smaller than a golf ball. If you are working with larger potatoes, use a pairing knife to cut potatoes into uniform sizes.

Yield: eight servings


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