“I had seconds to react”
Standing in the kitchen with my back to the living room, I heard what I thought was an awkward chuckle. I turned around to see anything but a laughing matter.
My mom was choking.
Her eyes wide, arms waving, she had been trying to get my attention. A small piece of steak from her salad had gotten lodged in her windpipe, making it impossible for her to breathe.
She then did what anyone in her situation should do: gave the universal choking sign, clasping her hands over her throat.
It’s something we train for yet hope to never use: first aid. It can be scary to jump in and help when no one else seems willing. According to the Red Cross, the more people who are present in a first aid emergency, the less likely an individual is to take action and help.
But the reality is, 90 percent of lives in an emergency are saved people already nearby during a crisis, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. In emergencies, these bystanders are often the first to act before a professional first responder arrives on the scene.
“We know that performing first aid and CPR saves lives, and it’s one of the easiest ways to be prepared to help,” said Dr. Mugurel Valentin Bazavan, a cardiologist at Advocate Health Care. “A choking person could be unconscious in less than five minutes without air, leading to potentially fatal consequences. But CPR can double or triple that person’s chances of survival after cardiac arrest.”
A few years ago, I got re-trained and certified in CPR and first aid. And because of that, I knew how to step into action by performing the Heimlich maneuver.
The National Safety Council reports choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death. A choking emergency can vary in how it looks, but if the person doesn’t give the universal choking signal like my mom did, look for these signs that indicate their immediate need for help:
- Inability to talk
- Difficulty breathing or noisy breathing
- Squeaky sounds when trying to breathe
- Cough, which may either be weak or forceful
- Skin, lips and nails turning blue or dusky
- Skin that is flushed, then turns pale or bluish in color
- Loss of consciousness
In the case of my mom, I knew performing the Heimlich was the right action to take. For any adult, it’s important to get professionally trained in first aid and CPR so you can practice under the guidance of a professional.
Here’s a quick guide to performing abdominal thrusts on a choking person, as indicated by the Heimlich maneuver:
- Stand behind the person. Place one foot slightly in front of the other for balance. Wrap your arms around the waist. Tip the person forward slightly. If a child is choking, kneel down behind the child.
- Make a fist with one hand. Position it slightly above the person’s navel.
- Grasp your fist with the other hand. Press hard into the abdomen with a quick, upward thrust — as if trying to lift the person up.
- Perform between six and 10 abdominal thrusts until the blockage is dislodged.
My training took control over my panicked state when I stepped in to help. And truthfully, my hands were probably off by a few centimeters from the exact place the official standards indicate.
But here’s the thing: when you have mere seconds, this can still be a lifesaving act – even if it’s not performed 100 percent perfectly.
To get trained, find a class today:
About the Author
Katie Wilkes, health enews contributor, is a freelance public affairs specialist at Advocate Aurora Health. A DePaul University alum, she brings a decade of experience in media relations and content development to her role. Katie is also the co-founder and Emmy-nominated producer at Freeheart Creative, dedicated to sharing stories of brave women around the world. In her spare time, you can find her zen-ing out at a yoga studio and chilling with her 14-year old West Highland Terrier.