The Heroic Dr. Henry Heimlich

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The Doctor Who Has Saved More Lives Than Any Other Human Being Alive Today

Interview by Anthony Al-Jamie

Dr. Henry Heimlich is perhaps the most important person I have interviewed in my entire career. He has invented medical procedures and devices that have saved, and continue to save, hundreds of thousands of lives every year. His medical innovations include the famous Heimlich maneuver, an approach to dislodging food from choking victims that can be done by just about anyone without any tools. Its success earned him celebrity status in the late 1970s on the talk show circuit including Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” Another innovation is the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve, a device that helps to prevent lungs from collapsing when bleeding occurs by draining air and liquid from the chest. This medical device is used in hospitals throughout the world, by police and emergency personnel to save the lives of gun shot victims, and by military personnel in just about every combat zone since the Vietnam War where the device saved lives on both sides of the line. Dr. Heimlich’s Micro-Trach is said to maximize oxygen intake, outperforming nasal cannulas, while completely concealing oxygen tubes under patients’ shirt collars. His remarkable work with the reversed gastric tube operation in the 1950s was the first full-organ transplant performed outside of the Iron Curtain and allowed patients with a damaged esophagus to swallow again. This is Part 1 of a series of interviews with the renowned Dr. Henry Heimlich.

TJ: Dr. Heimlich, I can’t believe you’re 94 years old. Your father lived to be 99 years old. I guess you plan on outliving him.
HEIMLICH: Yes, that’s right. By the way, I invited my sister Cele [Cecilia] to join us for the interview in case I need help recalling things. Cele is 99 years old and she’s going to be a hundred on the 31st of this month.

TJ: Are you really going to be 100 years old on the 31st? You look fantastic!
CELE: I just had a nap (laughs).

TJ: Tell me about your father. As I understand it, he was a healthcare pioneer in his own right.
HEIMLICH: My father was a social worker. He worked in prisons helping people maintain hope and dignity, and helping inmates prepare to adjust to life on the outside. One goal was to help them stay in touch with their families for support and encouragement. For example, if a prisoner was from New York City, Dad would try to have him sent to Sing Sing Correctional Facility along the Hudson in New York close to his family.

TJ: What influence did he have on you?
HEIMLICH: Spending time with my father expanded my education far beyond the classroom. From 12 years old I occasionally accompanied Dad to visit inmates and prison administrators. As I got older, my father gave me an opportunity to interact with hardcore convicts and juvenile delinquents and it proved to be a lesson in how to deal with and help people in desperate need.

TJ: Wasn’t it dangerous?
HEIMLICH: When I was 12 years old, my sister Cele was 18 and very pretty. Yet, despite the potential danger, Cele and I were allowed to wander unaccompanied throughout the prison. Sometimes a guard escorted us through the halls and from time to time the guards would leave an inmate’s cell door open so we could go inside and have a chat with them. One day after a customary walk through Sing Sing, Cele and I returned to the office of warden Lewis E. Lawes, who later authored “Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing,” which became a Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis movie. Talking with the warden at the time was a state prison commissioner, who asked, “How can you allow these children to walk through this prison alone?” Lawes replied matter-of-factly, “All the men know these are Phil Heimlich’s kids.” And that is all that needed to be said.

TJ: What did you learn from these visits?
HEIMLICH: What I learned from my parents and the way they reached out to other people was the power of respect. Pop had respect for the prisoners and their problems; they, in turn, had respect for him and the advice he gave. While most of society had ignored these people and their problems, my father did the opposite and taught me to do the same. I got to see first hand how respecting others, even individuals who had hit upon hard times, leads to a better life, not just for the recipients of the respect, but for all of us. In later years, I would medically treat individuals from all over the world who were wealthy and powerful as well as those who came from poverty. To me, no one deserved more or less care than the other. Each patient was a human being, someone who needed my focused attention along with a pat on the hand and a warm smile. Dad knew exactly what he was doing. He put us in these situations out of love and to open our eyes to the world beyond the suburbs in which we lived. So I guess you could say it was my parents who taught me to be a compassionate physician. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked as an educational administrator and journalist in Tokyo for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor. He currently works in higher education publishing and serves the Tokyo Journal as Executive Editor.



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