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Doctors choke on other use for Heimlich maneuver

To many Americans, Dr. Henry Heimlich and his eponymous maneuver are household names.

But as he has pushed the Heimlich maneuver as a method to resuscitate drowning victims, and not just as a remedy for choking, a backlash of opposition has come from the medical community, including a prominent critic from University Community Hospital. Heimlich has continued to stand behind his method as an aid for drowning victims, though he declined to comment when contacted by the Oracle.

Dr. James Orlowski, chief of pediatrics at University Community Hospital (UCH), has been one of Heimlich’s most prominent critics since he began to promote the Heimlich maneuver as a first response for drowning victims.

Orlowski first noticed Heimlich’s actions 19 years ago as a resident at the Cleveland Clinic.

“I started doing drowning research in high school, when I wrote my first abstract paper on the subject,” Orlowski said. “I had always respected Dr. Heimlich for his work on choking, but his explanations for drowning defied scientific knowledge.”

In 1987 Orlowski published an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) documenting the case of a young drowning victim. The boy was submerged under water for one to two minutes and then given the Heimlich maneuver as a first response rather than CPR.

“This should have been a routine resuscitation,” Orlowski said. “But instead the boy aspirated on his own vomit, fell into a coma and died seven years later.”

Orlowski said he collected more than 30 cases that showed the Heimlich maneuver to be a hindrance to drowning rescue.

Much of the controversy that has evolved out of Heimlich’s claims has thickened since 2002, when his son, Peter Heimlich, said he began to unearth years of medical fraud.

“Experts were never impressed with my father’s evidence, but until we came along no one took a close look at the facts of the cases,” Peter said. “We investigated and came to the conclusion that they’re dubious at best, fraud at worst.”

Realizing they had stumbled onto something serious, Peter and his wife Karen said they felt compelled to act.

“People trust my father because the maneuver has saved the lives of many choking victims,” Peter said. “When he tells them to do it on drowning victims, they don’t realize he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that if they follow his advice they might kill somebody. We didn’t want anyone to be hurt, so we decided to make as much noise as possible.”

The doctor was able to gain national prominence because he was charismatic and frequently approached the media, who didn’t question his claims, Orlowski said.

But when dealing with peers in medicine who disagreed with him, Heimlich lost some of his charisma, Peter said.

According to the doctor’s son, Heimlich would make noisy demands for the termination of his rivals, and would threaten other doctors with litigation.

“Most people don’t know that my father cultivated a reputation in the medical profession as someone who would relentlessly attack other doctors,” Peter said. “He’d write letters to people’s bosses demanding they be fired and would hint at pending lawsuits.

After writing directly to Dr. Heimlich and publishing his article in JAMA, Orlowski witnessed the wrath first hand.

“He began accusing me of all kinds of unethical behavior,” Orlowski said. “Basically he tried to make my life as miserable as possible.”

Orlowski has remained steadfast despite the attacks, and, according to Heimlich’s son, has been the most consistent and forthright opponent of the maneuver for drowning rescue.

“He did the right thing, which was to protect the public and to defend the scientific record,” Peter said. “The public may not know it, but we all owe him a debt of thanks. He may have saved a lot of lives.”