The Eternal Lights of Dr. Henry Heimlich

Dr. Heimlich, who passed away on December 18, 2016 at the age of 96 stoked many lights in this world. He is best known for his Heimlich Maneuver, however it was his other inventions that saved the most lives.

A Humble Beginning

Dr. Heimlich was born in Delaware and grew up during the depression in a working-class Jewish family in the Bronx. His father’s family immigrated from Hungary and his mother’s from Russia. At the age of 20, when working as a summer camp counselor, Dr. Heimlich had his first opportunity to begin what would become a lifetime of saving lives. A train derailment caused a fireman to become trapped under the wheel of one of the train cars, which was standing in a swamp. He kept the man’s head out of water for an hour until medics arrived to pull the man out.

In medical school, Dr. Heimlich signed up for Navy ROTC and in 1944 found himself in the Gobi Desert where he was tasked with setting up a medical camp. Rumors had it that the Japanese were going to attack. When not busy with his camp duties, Dr. Heimlich starting treating the local Chinese farmers who at first did not trust him very much, but after a successful save, hundreds of Chinese peasants would line up every day seeking medical treatment.

Life Saving Work

Dr. Heimlich’s service during the war disadvantaged him when it came time to setting up a private practice post-war. Doctors who had remained state-side were ahead of him in setting up offices or securing jobs with clinics and hospitals. He took an internship with a thoracic surgeon. It was during this time that he developed what would become the most life-saving procedure of all.

Dr. Heimlich noticed that the electrically powered suction machine used to drain fluid from the chest after an injury was extremely cumbersome and not very transportable. Without this machine the person could not survive. But even to move it from room to room was challenging. Reaching back to his childhood Bronx roots, Dr. Heimlich went to a five and dime store, purchased a rubber tube, and attached it to a hypodermic that was inserted into the chest. The first time, he stayed bedside for two nights. It worked.

In 1965, thousands of orders for his Heimlich Valve came from the Army. The Valve was required in the backpack of every soldier heading to Vietnam, saving thousands of lives. He later learned that the Quakers had supplied the Valve to the North Vietnamese, so the number of lives saved is countless. The Heimlich Maneuver was not developed until the 1970s when he was director of surgery at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati.

Driven By Jewish Ethics

When reflecting recently upon his life, Dr. Heimlich noted that it was more than the science that drove him to develop these techniques. His parents, he said, taught him that he has an obligation to give back to others. Judaism believes, he noted, that “he who saves a life saves an entire world.” Dr. Heimlich lived by this credo. As we go into Chanukah, our Festival of Lights, it is only fitting to reflect upon the many “lights” that Dr. Heimlich kept burning.

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