When a swimmer suddenly goes limp, unconscious, with his or her body turning a faded bluish color, bystanders yell, in any language, "Hey! This guy’s drowned, somebody do something!" All who hear the call want to do something - anything - that might restore life to that dying person. For longer than the world has had recorded history, humans have whipped, slapped, pounded, warmed, cooled or let blood in vain attempts to restore breathing to a lifeless body. Now, the familiar Heimlich maneuver - the one we learned at school, the one we use for choking - is saving almost every near-drowning victim. Drowning is choking on water. Four Heimlich maneuvers delivered in 10 seconds clear the water from lungs, and breathing resumes. Nothing else can do that!
When I first learned artificial respiration in Red Cross lifesaving classes, I became curious about the ancient ways people tried to raise the dead. American Indians collected warm wood ashes or warm animal dung and applied it to the abdomens of drowning victims. They also injected warm tobacco smoke into the rectums of the dying or dead in their hopeless attempt to restore life. Before recorded history, flailing was popular. A bystander would grab up a fist full of switches, preferably with briars, and flail the unconscious body. The Russians covered seated or supine victims with warm sand up to their necks. The Chinese tried immersing the lifeless body in warm oil. Various doctors tried to revive them by letting blood from the left jugular vein.
History describes how rescuers tried to drain the water out of victims by tying their feet together and hanging them upside down from a nearby tree limb! We tried that once at a Red Cross water safety demonstration. It required three strong men to lift the young boy and keep him upside down for one brief moment.
A much more effective technique was to toss the drowned body across a horse and put the horse in a trot.
A boy in Ireland drowned, and people tried but gave up hope of saving him. A friend of the family lifted the boy with a fireman’s carry and ran. He let the body to the floor at his mother’s feet. As he put the boy down, the child was alive and breathing! This true event happened long ago, and it has a local twist. The family moved from Ireland to Jefferson City, and the "drowned" boy lived to be 92 years old!
Many years ago Americans went all out for a device called a pulmotor. It was like an old automobile tire pump; a mask was strapped over the victim’s face, and the "rescuer" forced air into the drowned one’s body.
It’s likely that this device killed hundreds of people. It was popular for many years in spite of the anger of medical personnel.
I completed my first lifesaving course 70 years ago, and various people were still talking about those great pulmotors! Our teacher made it clear: "Pulmotors killed more victims than they saved."
Early techniques for saving drowning people required either props or equipment - or more than one person to work. In 1856, the first "direct" artificial respiration technique was devised. It was performed by only one person, with his or her two bare hands! That was an extremely important change; countless additional lives were saved.
Artificial respiration became my hobby, and I used local clay to represent 40 different antique respiration techniques.
American Medical News published an article and five color photos of these little sculptures. As a result, Henry Heimlich came to our farm to see the figures, and we became good friends.
When I introduced him to my husband, Chub, I referred to the well-known doctor as "Mr. Heimlich" and quickly apologized.
Heimlich put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Sue, just call me Hank!"