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USF professor fights Heimlich maneuver’s use in drowning

Published: Thursday, June 21, 2012

Updated: Thursday, June 21, 2012 02:06

The Heimlich Institute has stopped advocating on their website for the Heimlich maneuver to be used as a first aid measure for drowning victims.

But while the removal of information on the Heimlich maneuver and drowning is a victory of sorts for Peter Heimlich, the son of Dr. Henry Heimlich, who discovered the famous maneuver, and James Orlowski, a USF clinical professor who has worked to show the dangers of performing the Heimlich maneuver on drowning victims, the Heimlich Institute said they have not changed their stance on the maneuver’s importance.

Patrick Ward, executive director of Deaconess Associations, the parent company of the Heimlich Institute, said the Institute doesn’t take a position on the Heimlich maneuver for drowning. The Institute’s main function, he said, is teaching the Heimlich maneuver for choking.

“We’ve cleaned out a lot of stuff on that site because all we’re going to do is focus on the (education initiatives),” he said. “We’re not talking about anything else.”

But Peter Heimlich, whose website has long been dedicated to disproving his father’s theory in relation to drowning and called his father’s work on the subject “dangerous quackery,” said the removal of the information had more significance. It happened shortly after he sent an email to Ward and the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

“I expressed my concern that the Institute was putting the public at risk by promoting my father’s crackpot medical claims,” he said. “The next day I visited the website and discovered that dozens of pages had been scrubbed. Virtually every mention of drown-ing, asthma and cystic fibrosis had disappeared.”

Though the Institute did not acknowledge the email as the reason behind the website changes, Heimlich and Orlowski consider the institute’s dismissal of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning as an important step in making it completely obsolete.

“They finally stopped pushing it,” Orlowski said. “For years, Heimlich used his institute to push his maneuver, especially to lifeguards and lifesavers, despite the scientific evidence.“
Orlowski initially came across Henry Heimlich’s article explaining the scientific rationale of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning more than thirty years ago.

Orlowski said the original premise of using the Heimlich maneuver as a first aid technique for drowning victims is that it would get water out of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system.

But, he said, water doesn’t get into or block the airway of a drowning victim.

“The entire explanation that he gave was scientifically unsound and illogical,” he said. “Water’s quickly absorbed from the airway into the bloodstream,” he said. “You don’t have water obstructing the airway at all.”

Orlowski published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the late 1980s about how using the Heimlich maneuver for drowning hurt a particular victim at a hospital where he was practicing.

“The lifeguard had done the Heimlich maneuver, which had caused the child to vomit a large amount, and the child ended up aspirating that vomit into his lungs,” he said. “He then ended up with very severe lung injury, which complicated the entire resuscitation in intensive care. He ended up severely brain damaged and actually died about six or seven years later.”

Orlowski has since spoken on numerous occasions and written several scientific articles about drowning and how the Heimlich maneuver is not appropriate as a life-saving measure.

Peter Heimlich, who heard of Orlowski through reading his work in journals, cited 40 other cases Orlowski documented where outcomes for drowning victims became worse after the Heimlich maneuver was performed on them, occasionally including death.

But Ward said the organization’s primary focus was not the advocacy of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning, but rather to educate elementary school students.

“Our main focus is not on anything but the Heimlich Heroes,” he said. “We’ve been developing that program for about two years and it kicked off this spring. It doesn’t relate to drowning or anything else. It’s just straight Heimlich maneuver.”

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