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Heimlich maneuver saved my child

If you're a parent, you are your child's first responder

By Ian Mitchell, Tribune reporter

February 28, 2014

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Last month I saved my son's life.

I don't mean "saved his life" as a figure of speech for "did him a big favor" or "inspired him to change his ways."

I mean it in the very literal sense of "kept him from dying": I think the Heimlich maneuver is why my 5-year-old is still breathing.

It's amazing how fast things can go from everyday to emergency.

My wife, our son and I had been having an ordinary lunch at home. He chose a banana for dessert. In my house, once it is ascertained that you are having a banana, the next question is, do you want to eat it cut up or like a monkey?

Our boy chose "like a monkey."

But this time he took too big a bite, the banana went down the wrong tube and all of a sudden our chatty son couldn't speak. Or, more importantly, breathe. He began making a ghastly choking sound.

"Spit it out," I said, thinking he was just gagging on his food. He leaned over his plate but only clear mucus came out.

"He can't breathe," my wife kept saying. She was seated across the table and later told me she saw his eyes bulge out as he tried to gasp for air. She's still a little haunted by that memory.

Seated next to him, I was lucky enough not to see that. And fairly quickly I moved behind him. I made a fist with one hand, wrapped my arms around him and made an abdominal thrust inward and upward, trying to force air out of his lungs to dislodge the blockage.

I never saw a chunk of banana go flying dramatically across the room, but after three squeezes, our youngest son could breathe again. Just like that, the crisis was over.

Before our first child was born, I had been a typical fretting dad-to-be. I covered the electrical outlets. I installed safety locks on the kitchen drawers. I put foam on the coffee table's sharp edges.

I even signed up for the CPR class for new parents at our local hospital. At the time, friends and family may have poked some gentle fun at me for taking things to extremes, but I will be forever grateful that the one-day course included training in the Heimlich maneuver.

I know there has been controversy on some specifics of how to respond to choking and what to call the abdominal thrusting technique. Such distinctions seemed immaterial at the moment of crisis. And what I was taught as "the Heimlich maneuver" did the trick.

After that frightening experience with my son, I contacted the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago and talked with Gabriele Romanucci, who teaches Red Cross CPR classes to everyone from first-time parents to first responders.

Romanucci has been teaching for a decade, and in about every other class he encounters a student who has had to come to a choking person's aid.

"It's the most common emergency situation anyone will face," he said.

In a conscious choking emergency, where a person can't cough, speak or breathe, the Red Cross procedure is to ask the person if he or she is choking and get consent to give aid. Then administer five strong back blows between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand, "as forceful as you deem necessary to save that person's life," Romanucci said.

The back blows are a less-invasive technique that might help clear the airway, so the Red Cross advises trying them first, he said.

"If that technique is not successful, then we would go to the abdominal thrust," he said.

To do that, from behind the victim reach around and make a fist about an inch above the belly button, then reach around with the other hand and grab your fist, Romanucci said.

"The movement is going to be a reverse 'J,' where you're going to bring those fists up and in to dislodge the object, because that trapped air is going to be your friend," he said.

Romanucci said teaching what to do in a conscious choking emergency takes only a few minutes of his 4½-hour classes, which also cover CPR and automated external defibrillators. The Red Cross also offers online courses and "blended" courses that combine online training with two hours of classroom instruction. Hospitals and other organizations offer classes too.

If you don't have time for any first-aid class, you may want to download the Red Cross' free first-aid app for smartphones.

My wife told me she had been thinking of calling 911 as she watched our son choke, and Romanucci said that's always a good idea.

"Nowadays we all have smartphones," he said, adding that emergency dispatchers are trained in choking rescue procedures. "Put them on speaker and they can walk you through it."

When someone can't breathe, it's important to act fast, he said. "If the brain is starved of oxygen for more than four to six minutes, that's when the damage can start occurring."

I'm sure a dispatcher could have coached my wife through the Heimlich, and paramedics, if needed, would have arrived quickly.

But if you're a parent, you are your child's first responder.

Knowing what to do when my son had an emergency turned what could have been a very traumatic event — or worse — into something that left him with only a few tears.

In a few minutes, the little monkey even asked to finish his banana.

This time I cut it up into very, very tiny pieces.

imitchell@tribune.com