Editor's Note: Joan River's death due to cardiac arrest reminded us how important basic life-saving skills can be in an emergency. This article first ran in January 2013; the advice it offers is timeless.
A few years ago, I flew to Toronto to oversee a cover shoot for the magazine I was running.
The art director and I decided to grab a bite at a cafe near our hotel before heading out to the set.
I thought the highlight of my trip would be my behind-the-scenes video interview with the star of HGTV’s Divine Design, Candice Olson. But that production proved to be pretty mundane compared to what transpired soon after we arrived at the restaurant.
We were seated in a tight nook next to a pair of middle-aged women. An older woman and a middle-aged man were eating at another table behind us. We placed our orders and were waiting for our food when all hell broke loose.
The older woman started choking and gasping for air. In a matter of moments, her face turned blue. Her companion and other nearby diners called out for help but stood frozen. I spun around at the first rattling sound and shrieked “Oh, my God,” which was certainly not going to do anyone any good. But I didn’t have the first clue about how to perform the rescue technique I’d seen depicted on faded posters taped to restaurant walls in New York.
Fortunately, someone near us did. One of the women to our side leaped out of her seat, wrapped her arms around the waist of the choking diner from behind and began the telltale upward thrusting, hand-over-fist movements of the Heimlich maneuver — just in time to save her life.
The obstructive culprit quickly dislodged from the woman’s airway and she began sucking in air. The heroine of this tale sobbed at the sight, overwhelmed not just by what she had accomplished, but also by something else none of us could have known, something equally remarkable. Once she regained her composure she explained that she’d just completed Heimlich and CPR training the day before.
That someone who knew what to do in the face of a health emergency was seated near the person who was stricken at the exact moment she needed help, that I was there to see it and tell you about it … Well, I’m filing all that in my "grand mysteries of the universe" catalog, in the radiant spot where fate, faith and free will converge.
But what I’ll say here now is that one woman’s knowledge of a proven first-aid technique and her immediate, capable response saved a life.
We Can All Save More Lives
Choking can happen to anyone at any time. According to the Heimlich Institute’s site, “since the Heimlich maneuver was introduced in 1974 by Henry Heimlich, M.D., it has saved the lives of more than 50,000 people, famous and not-so-famous. In 1985, then U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop endorsed the Heimlich maneuver as the only safe method for saving a choking victim.”
Another type of health crisis puts far more lives at risk. About 250,000 people in the United States die every year from sudden cardiac arrest. The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation points out that's more than the number of people who die annually from colorectal, prostate and breast cancer, auto accidents, AIDS, firearms and house fires combined.
Learning to use the Heimlich maneuver can save someone who's choking; learning how to do CPR and use an AED (automated external defibrillator) can save sudden cardiac arrest victims. I pray that you never have to perform or be on the receiving end of these techniques. But if you do, it will be a life-and-death moment — and you will be very glad that the know-how is so readily available.
(MORE: 5 Ways to Push Past Your Regrets)
There’s no time like the present. We should all comb through this highly empowering project and companion website — HeartRescue Project — designed to bolster the survival rate of those who experience sudden cardiac arrest.
Now, I know you must be wondering if I learned the Heimlich maneuver and CPR after witnessing the choking incident in Toronto. Well, I promised myself I would, but I’m embarrassed to admit that …
Wait … hold on a second …
OK … I’m signing up now. No more excuses.