Henry Heimlich: At 94, Cincinnati's famous, polarizing doctor still working to shape his legacy

Criticism of his work and theories persists

CINCINNATI – At 94 years old, Dr. Henry Heimlich could be expected to slow down.

After all, the retired chest surgeon has been credited with saving thousands of lives because of the Heimlich Maneuver, the technique designed to be so simple anyone could save a child choking on a toy or a dinner guest with a hunk of steak stuck in his throat.

But Heimlich made it clear in interviews with WCPO that he’s not finished shaping his legacy. He’s out to tackle a problem even more intractable: world peace.

“We have numerous wars going on that are useless, deadly and have no real basis,” he said during an interview at the Hyde Park retirement community where he lives. “Right now, the United States and China are the economically No. 1 and No. 2. I believe that we should get together and take steps to bring peace throughout the world.”

If it sounds like a challenge too big for one man to tackle, that’s classic Heimlich. He’s a medical icon lauded by supporters as a maverick and a bold innovator and decried by critics as a man who prizes his fame and reputation above good science.

A Polarizing Force

There’s no doubt Heimlich has built his life’s work around saving the lives of others.

In 1962, years before the maneuver that bears his name, he conceived of the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, credited with saving scores of lives on the battlefields of the Vietnam War and emergency rooms across the country. Nearly a decade before that in 1955, he gained notoriety with an operation that replaces a patient’s severely damaged esophagus or one that has been removed. The procedure crafts part of the stomach into a new organ.

“He came up with ideas that in principle seemed so simple but have helped and saved more people than probably anybody else on the planet,” said Dr. Ronald Sacher, a Heimlich friend and director of University of Cincinnati’s Hoxworth Blood Center. He met the doctor through the Rotary Club of Cincinnati about a decade ago.

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Persistent critics question whether Heimlich’s more recent theories have risked more lives than they’ve saved and whether he even deserves credit for the famous maneuver that bears his now ubiquitous name.

“Heimlich is a guy with an unbelievably big ego, and there’s no shortage of those in the medical profession,” said B. Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, a lifeguard industry group in California. “But the problem is that he is using his reputation to push personal theories on front-line practitioners. There is no doubt that many of them have followed his recommendations, and who knows how many people out there have received improper care as a result.”

Brewster was referring to Heimlich’s insistence that lifeguards should use his maneuver on drowning victims before trying to blow air into their lungs – a position Heimlich said he takes because he has heard from so many people that the maneuver has saved lives.

Heimlich also persists in arguing malariotherapy – the practice of injecting patients with a curable form of malaria – should be researched as a possible treatment for AIDS and other diseases.

The American Heart Association studied the use of the Heimlich Maneuver for drowning in the 1990s and dismissed the idea. A World Health Organization report called Heimlich-backed experiments in the late 1990s that infected AIDS patients in China with malaria one of the “atrocities” committed by doctors in recent memory.

But Heimlich hasn’t backed down on either.

For his staunchest supporters, that’s all they need to hear.

“I can assure you if I had AIDS or another disease he thought it might work with – shoot me up,” Heimlich’s son, Phil, said of malariotherapy.

Heimlich also has pleaded with the American Red Cross for years to make the Heimlich Maneuver the organization's primary first aid recommendation for someone who is choking, arguing that the back slaps the organization now recommends as a first response could be fatal. But Don Lauritzen, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in an email that the organization's current recommendations are based on a review of scientific literature and are "consistent with those of international resuscitation societies."

The famous doctor took on the Red Cross again and also explained the inspiration behind some of his ideas and why he believes in them so strongly in his memoir. "Heimlich’s Maneuvers: My Seventy Years of Lifesaving Innovation" is scheduled for release in bookstores nationwide Feb. 11.

 

He has a more difficult time explaining what drives him.

“I just do these things,” he said in an interview with WCPO days before his 94th birthday. “I don’t sit back and say, ‘What’s going to drive me this morning?’ It is just what I do.”

He doesn’t appear ready to stop “doing” any time soon.

Heimlich’s long life can be divided into two main volumes: Before the maneuver and after.

Before The Maneuver

Henry Heimlich was born Feb. 3, 1920 in Wilmington, Del. His father, Philip Heimlich, was a beloved and celebrated social worker who helped prisoners and young delinquents turn around their lives. His mother, Mary, helped raise her five younger brothers and sisters after her own mother died when she was a teenager.

“Mom and Dad were the most generous people I have ever known,” Heimlich wrote in his memoir.

Young Hank graduated from high school in New York and was drum major for Cornell University’s Big Red Marching Band as an undergraduate. He graduated from what is now known as Weill Cornell Medical College in 1943 with a degree in medicine. He later completed a residency in thoracic – or chest – surgery.

Heimlich enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II because he liked to sail. But he ended up in the desert – accepting an assignment as a camp doctor in the Sino American Cooperative Organization, known as SACO.

The SACO men were assigned to various camps in China. Heimlich’s Camp 4 was located near the Gobi Desert and served primarily as a weather-monitoring station to notify ships in the Pacific about the weather conditions coming their way.

As the camp doctor, Heimlich was responsible for treating American troops along with nearby villagers and soldiers in the Chinese guerilla army that was working with U.S. forces.

Heimlich has spoken publicly many times about how a Chinese soldier dying in his arms inspired his invention of the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve years later. He told WCPO he trained Chinese soldiers to form their first-ever medical corps for the guerilla army, an account repeated in his book.

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Frederick Webster said he served as assistant to “Doc Heimlich” at Camp 4. Webster said he doesn’t recall the dying soldier or any medical corps training, although he said there were a few weeks where the men’s service there did not overlap.

“You really can’t believe any of the stories the veterans tell you,” said Webster, who is 93 and lives in Vermont. “The Chinese soldiers never seriously needed help.”

Webster told WCPO detailed stories of how Heimlich treated the Chinese and life at the camp.

Heimlich said he doesn’t remember Webster and questioned whether the two men actually served together.

“He doesn’t mean anything to me at all,” Heimlich said.

Saving A Life, Finding A Wife

After the war, when Heimlich was a young doctor in New York City, he had a life-saving encounter that changed the course of his own life.

As described in his late wife’s 2010 memoir, "Out of Step," Heimlich was the doctor on call at Bellevue Hospital when a New York businessman named Dick Yeatman stopped breathing. Yeatman had fallen four stories while cleaning a window a few days earlier and had suffered serious injuries. A nurse asked Heimlich to pronounce him dead.

Heimlich took Yeatman’s pulse and found he was still alive. He realized Yeatman’s injuries were making it difficult for him to breathe. Heimlich performed a tracheotomy, and Yeatman started breathing again.

As Yeatman recovered, Heimlich got to know his wife, Connie, who was a friend of Jane Murray’s. Murray was an aspiring writer and the daughter of famous ballroom dancing entrepreneurs Arthur and Kathryn Murray. The Yeatmans introduced the young doctor to Murray, and the two married after a four-month courtship.

 

Jane Murray Heimlich wrote how excited she was to “shed my celebrity maiden name for one of an anonymous doctor.”

That anonymity didn’t last long.

From New York to Cincinnati

For years, Heimlich was a surgeon known in medical circles for the esophagus operation and the chest valve, a father of four with famous in-laws.

Ronald Russo remembers him as a brilliant innovator and collaborator. Russo was a young medical device designer for Becton, Dickinson and Co., where Heimlich served as a consultant. He worked with Heimlich in the 1960s to perfect the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, he said, and shares a patent with him for the Heimlich Sponge Stick, a device designed to combine a surgeon’s suction and sponge tools into one. That one never took off, Russo said.

“He was a very creative, innovative gentleman,” said Russo, who now lives in Rhode Island. “In a way, he was kind of a little bit of an outsider, too. The medical profession is pretty regimented. You didn’t think outside the box. But he was always questioning why they did certain things.”

Heimlich also made connections that other doctors didn’t, Russo said. He remembers one conversation in particular when Heimlich said he had never operated on a patient with lung cancer who hadn’t also been a smoker.

“I went home and put down my pack of Lucky Strikes and never smoked again,” Russo said.

After building his career in New York, Heimlich moved his family to Cincinnati in 1969 when he was named director of surgery for The Jewish Hospital.

By then, Phil and his younger brother, Peter, were teenagers. Janet and Elisabeth, the Heimlichs’ twin daughters, were in elementary school.

Heimlich’s late wife wrote about how well the family settled into life here and how welcome they felt.

But their quiet life changed forever with the development of what became known as the Heimlich Maneuver.

After The Maneuver

Heimlich had been living and working in Cincinnati for several years when he read an article in the New York Times that took him by surprise. The article listed choking as a leading cause of death in the U.S. and said thousands of victims were dying in restaurants each year.

The article said people nearby seemed to assume that those in distress were having heart attacks, known as “café coronaries.” But in fact, the article stated, the victims had choked to death.

Heimlich said he was compelled to help and started thinking about different techniques that could be used to remove an object that was blocking a choking person’s airway.

As a chest surgeon, Heimlich said, he wondered if there was a way to use air in the lungs to expel an object trapped in a choking person’s airway.

After trying several different techniques with beagle dogs used for experiments in those days, Heimlich says he conceived of the maneuver.

He placed a fist just below the rib cage and pushed up into the diaphragm. The action pushed air from the lungs like a bellows, Heimlich said, forcing out the obstruction.

It worked on the dogs, he said, but he had no way to test the technique broadly on people. He wrote a medical article called “Pop Goes the Café Coronary” in 1974 and sent the information to a reporter in Chicago who wrote articles about medical news that were published in newspapers across the country.

Heimlich described what happened next in his memoir.

Within weeks, a Bellevue, Wash., restaurant operator sprang into action after having read the article in The Seattle Times. The man was staying in his family’s cabin when a neighbor from a nearby cabin yelled for help. The neighbor’s wife had slumped over at the dinner table and was turning blue, according to newspaper accounts at the time. The restaurant operator saw she had been eating and he and his son used the maneuver on the man’s wife. The food became dislodged, and she was saved.

The Seattle Times ran an article about how the woman had been saved, and word of the new technique spread quickly. Two months later, Heimlich said, he got a call from an editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The editor told him the journal wanted to name the method for him.

“I thanked them, of course,” Heimlich recalled.

The editor then explained that he and his colleagues were trying to decide whether to call it the Heimlich Method or the Heimlich Maneuver. Heimlich asked him about the distinction.

“They said, ‘Well, a maneuver is something you do once or repeat, and it accomplishes what you’re researching. A method is a series of different steps, like a urine analysis,’” Heimlich recalled. “And I said to joke, ‘I’m not going to be a urine analysis. Use maneuver.’”

From Operating Room to TV Studio

Thus the Heimlich Maneuver was born. The Cincinnati surgeon quickly became a household name and, by 1980, the Heimlich Maneuver was an entry in the Random House Dictionary, according to Heimlich’s memoir.

Jan Heimlich, one of his twin daughters, said she didn’t realize how big of a deal her dad had become until one day he came home and told her and her sister: “Hey girls, you’re going to be on ‘Wonderama.’”

“Wonderama” was a children’s show taped in New York that aired on Metromedia-owned TV stations from the mid 1950s until the late 1970s, including in Cincinnati.

“My sister and I watched that show religiously,” Janet Heimlich said. “I think my first question was, ‘Am I going to meet (host) Bob McAlister?’”

The Heimlich girls got new haircuts and went to New York to demonstrate the maneuver on the show in front of a studio audience of other children.

Phil Heimlich said he didn’t realize how famous his father had become until he got a call that his dad was going to be a guest on “The Tonight Show” with host Johnny Carson in April 1979. A student at University of Virginia’s School of Law at the time, he invited some classmates to watch his dad’s appearance.

“He actually ended up getting in this sort of repartee with Johnny Carson,” Phil Heimlich recalled. He watched his dad demonstrate the maneuver on Johnny Carson, who in turn demonstrated how to do it on actress Angie Dickinson.

“It was actually very good TV,” Phil Heimlich said. “That’s when I recognized that he kind of hit the big time.”

The Heimlich Maneuver became such a part of American culture that animated Batman and Robin characters starred in a public service announcement to demonstrate it.

 

 

A reference to “the Heimlich” also appeared on a poster during the 1988 NFC Division playoffs between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles. It said: “Don’t Expect The Heimlich When You Choke In Chicago Buddy!” next to a picture of a big bear with a paw wrapped around the throat of a scrawny eagle.

Heimlich had become a hero in his adopted home of Cincinnati, and the city claimed him as one of its icons.

The Skeptics

Except there are those who say it wasn’t that simple. They believe Heimlich took credit for a maneuver that wasn’t completely his.

The late Dr. Edward Patrick, an associate of Heimlich’s who died in 2009, claimed for years that he was co-inventor of the maneuver.

In fact, he issued a press release in 2003 after a reporter approached him and asked whether he – not Heimlich – had invented it.

“I have always viewed that Dr. Heimlich and I worked together to develop what has become known as the Heimlich Maneuver just as the Wright brothers worked together to develop the first flying machine,” Patrick wrote in the release.

One of Patrick’s ex-wives told WCPO he always referred to the maneuver as the “Patrick Maneuver” when discussing it at home with their children.

“The engineering part was what he developed,” said Joy Patrick, who married Dr. Patrick in 2000, years after the maneuver became famous. “It was supposed to be called the Heimlich-Patrick Maneuver. I know deep down inside that Ed developed the Heimlich Maneuver. I know he did.”

Patrick and Heimlich certainly worked together over the years.

The two were part of a group of doctors and academics known as the HARP Group that also included former astronaut Neil Armstrong and the late Benadryl inventor George Rieveschl. (HARP is spelled using the first letter of each man’s last name.) The four men worked in the 1970s to improve the pump used for artificial heart-lung systems and presented a paper on their research at the 1975 meeting of the American Association of Medical Instrumentation in Boston, Mass.

Still, there’s no documentation that shows definitively how – or whether – Patrick was involved in developing the choking maneuver.

Heimlich told WCPO that Patrick came to Cincinnati after the Heimlich maneuver was introduced nationwide and played no part in its development.

 “Patrick came around some months later. It was already widely reported,” he said. “He had nothing to do with the maneuver.”

Heimlich makes no mention of Patrick in his soon-to-be-released memoir, a fact that stunned Joy Patrick.

Her late ex-husband, she said, always thought that Heimlich would come around and give him credit for his work eventually.

If Heimlich truly believed Patrick was trying to take credit that he didn’t deserve, Joy Patrick said, “Then why did you come to my wedding? Why did you hold my baby?”

Controversial Innovator

Heimlich’s supporters say the controversy that surrounds him is to be expected.

“If you’re never doing anything controversial, then you’re not an innovator,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “That comes with the turf.”

 

Barnard’s organization filmed a teaching video with Heimlich in the late 1980s or early 1990s arguing against the use of animals in medical school experiments and also filmed public service announcements with the doctor demonstrating how to do the maneuver for choking and for drowning. In 2005, the group created the Henry J. Heimlich Award for Innovative Medicine.

“To me, he stands for the very best of medicine, which is selfless innovation and compassion and wanting to get the job done to save lives,” Barnard said. “He’s a role model.”

Heimlich’s critics argue the doctor represents the worst in medicine – a practitioner who puts his ego ahead of people’s well being and promotes unproven theories because he is so certain that he’s right.

Heimlich has never been willing to reject one of his theories once it’s proven wrong, said Robert Baratz, a Boston doctor who is the former president of the now defunct National Council Against Health Fraud.

Baratz has been a vocal critic of Heimlich’s work in malariotherapy and his promotion of the Heimlich Maneuver for drowning and treating asthma, among other theories. He argues that Heimlich has attacked any other scientist who have used data to criticize his theories and methods.

“We live in a world of evidence-based medicine today,” Baratz said. “We do not accept ‘I said so’ as an answer.”

Heimlich said any assertion that he relies on anecdotal evidence instead of scientific evidence to determine the success of his innovations and theories "is nonsense and should be ignored." He noted he has published more than 100 scientific papers, has presented more than 250 medical lectures and has won honorary degrees and awards for his work. He added that he is proud of his work, saying "my innovations have saved lives and continue to save lives."

“Anything that I have come up with has been successful,” he said. “I don’t know of one that hasn’t worked.”

Critic In The Family

Chief among Heimlich’s harshest critics is his younger son.

Peter Heimlich, 59, a fabric importer and musician, lives in Georgia with his wife and has been working for more than a decade to investigate his father’s legacy. He started by using pseudonyms to gather information and to give tips to reporters. He now has a website – MedFraud.info – dedicated to his investigations and the stories his work has prompted. He writes a blog focused on his father at www.the-sidebar.com.

Peter Heimlich said he started his research in 2002 after learning about a family medical problem in 2001 that alarmed him. He won’t discuss the problem in detail but said it involved his mother’s health, and he was concerned his famous father wasn’t being completely honest with him.

“When I first started contacting reporters, I informed them I was using a pseudonym because I didn’t want my identity to color their perception of the story,” Peter Heimlich wrote in response to questions from WCPO. “If they chose to move forward, I’d tell them who I was.”

Peter Heimlich and his wife, Karen Shulman, have dug into every aspect of Henry Heimlich’s career, working to fact-check every story the famous doctor has ever told publicly.

That research has led him to believe, as he has written on his website: “I don’t think my father invented anything but his own mythology.”

For more than a year, the rest of the family couldn’t figure out who was working to discredit Heimlich. Phil Heimlich convinced his father to hire Chris Finney, a local lawyer and friend, to track down the source of hundreds of emails, letters and faxes attacking the Heimlich medical legacy.

Finney’s cyber-sleuthing led to Peter Heimlich.

“It was devastating,” Finney said. “It was a body blow to both Dr. and Mrs. Heimlich that it was Peter who’d been doing it.”

Peter Heimlich said he found out his father had learned he was “stirring the pot” in what he calls “a spooky letter” in November 2003.

Heimlich’s official statement about his son is that he “loves his son and does not want to discuss him in the media,” according to a spokeswoman. Peter Heimlich is not mentioned in his father’s book.

When asked about her brother’s motivation, Jan Heimlich responded: “I don’t know. And it’s hard for me to even surmise about that. I just can’t even say that I know him well enough to be able to conjecture about that.”

Peter Heimlich’s supporters view him as someone determined to tell the truth, regardless of the outcome.

“I think Peter is really someone who is concerned about the bad things that were happening to people based on what his father was doing,” Baratz said.

Heimlich family friends don’t like to talk about the tension between Peter, his parents and his siblings because, they say, it has all been so painful.

The Rev. Noel Julnes-Dehner was a close friend of Heimlich’s wife for many years. She remembers how the couple supported each other and how proud Heimlich was of his wife, who was an accomplished author and expert on homeopathic medicine.

“They would both bring the conversation around to each other,” said Julnes-Dehner, an assisting priest at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Terrace Park.

“It wasn’t all about Hank,” added her husband, Joe Dehner, a lawyer with Frost Brown Todd in Cincinnati and long-time Heimlich friend. The Dehners, in fact, met at a party at the Heimlichs’ house.

“It was a partnership,” Dehner said.

That partnership ended when Jane Murray Heimlich died in November 2012. Her health had declined after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease years earlier.

 

Not Finished Yet

The famous doctor now lives in a retirement community and has helpers who sit with him during interviews to jog his memory or help him find a stray word.

But even at 94, Heimlich remains remarkably sharp. He exercises at home each day, spends time on his computer and socializes with others at the retirement community.

He defends his ideas. He pokes fun at himself. And he thinks a lot about his legacy as a lifesaver and his world peace project, which he calls A Caring World.

His Heimlich Institute website describes the program as a search for peaceful solutions to international problems.

Jan Heimlich sees the program as an expansion of her father’s focus.

“This is just the kind of person he is,” she said. “He sees a problem, and he feels like he has a solution possibly, so he wants to talk about it.”

Her brother, Phil, the former Cincinnati city councilman and Hamilton County commissioner, has a different take.

“I have what I would describe as a Biblical view of human nature, which is that all of us have a tendency toward evil instead of good,” he said. “I think Dad perhaps has more hope for mankind than I do.”

Heimlich made A Caring World sound simple during an interview, just as he makes it sound simple to save a choking victim or replace an esophagus.

The concept, he explained, is a matter of the U.S. and China combining their economic might to improve the economies of warring nations. He pointed to the academic partnership that the University of Cincinnati is undertaking with a university in China as a small example of the great things that could happen if the two nations would take on bigger problems together.

“If we do that,” he said, “We will have A Caring World.”

With that, Heimlich stood up from a loveseat in his living room, shook hands with the people there to interview him and stepped out of the spotlight – at least temporarily.

TIMELINE: The Long Career of Dr. Henry Heimlich

 

Photos by WCPO photojournalist Kareem Elgazzar

Infographic by WCPO multimedia producer Libby Duebber.

Timeline by WCPO multimedia producer Brian Niesz.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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