Fighting for Air: Drowning and the Heimlich Maneuver

Most doctors say the Heimlich maneuver should not be used to save drowning victims. So why does UH professor John Hunsucker continue to teach it to lifeguards?

The first time John Hunsucker performed CPR was on some poor schmuck who dropped dead in his driveway.

The young college professor was driving home from work late one evening back in the early 1970s when he spotted a ­middle-aged man lying motionless beneath a bicycle. He hopped out of his car, tossed the bike aside and spent the next hour performing chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth ventilation.

NASCO-trained lifeguards Jordan Crowder and Kaeley Scarborough demonstrate how the Heimlich maneuver can be performed in the water before CPR.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
NASCO-trained lifeguards Jordan Crowder and Kaeley Scarborough demonstrate how the Heimlich maneuver can be performed in the water before CPR.

The guy vomited profusely, but never regained consciousness.

"There are foods I don't eat today because of that," says Hunsucker, pausing for effect before biting into a patty melt inside a Denny's near Baybrook Mall. "Cooked tomatoes is one of them."

Today Hunsucker is a professor emeritus at the University of Houston, where he taught mathematics and engineering for three decades. A longtime American Red Cross volunteer, he also owns and serves as president of the National Aquatic Safety Company, or NASCO, the third-largest lifeguard certification agency for water parks in the country, which he runs out of his house in Dickinson.

Hunsucker has never appeared in any Houston-area media, though he is internationally known as a pioneer and expert in the field of water safety. He helped create water-rescue techniques now commonly employed by many first responders, including the Houston police and fire departments. He also developed scanning procedures and ways to identify drowning victims for lifeguards in water parks.

His risk-management company boasts clients in almost every state, as well as foreign countries as far away as Dubai. He provides services locally for Schlitterbahn in Galveston, Water World in Spring and the city-owned pool in Deer Park.

He has won awards from the National Water Safety Congress and the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics. In 2000, he was elected to the World Waterpark Association Hall of Fame, and, in 2005, he was recognized by Aquatics International magazine as among the industry's most influential people.

Although there's no award for it, Hunsucker is also widely considered among the most controversial.

NASCO is the largest and perhaps only lifeguard-certification agency in the country that teaches the Heimlich maneuver rather than cardiopulmonary resuscitation as a first response for drowning victims — a protocol shunned for years by the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association and warned against as potentially deadly by several leading drowning experts.

"The science is against it," says Dr. James Orlowski, chief of pediatrics at University Community Hospital in Tampa, Florida, who claims he has studied 30 cases where he says the Heimlich maneuver caused serious harm to drowning victims.

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of when Hunsucker first made his case in the trade magazine Splash, arguing that most lifeguards are teenagers who lack the maturity to perform CPR — a technique he calls confusing and far less effective than widely believed.

He also warned that CPR puts the rescuer at risk of AIDS, hepatitis and tuberculosis, as well as profound psychological scars. "Having performed mouth-to-mouth on a victim, I can assure you that the mental involvement of the rescuer is quite large," he wrote. "The experience was quite traumatic to my mental health."

Hunsucker even went so far as to encourage lifeguards to make up their own minds rather than "blindly follow" established medical protocols. "God gave you a brain, or else you would not be a lifeguard," he admonished. "I am not a physician. But on the other hand, I'm not stupid, either."

The essay remains a flash point for many leaders in emergency medicine and water safety.

"It's classic Hunsucker hubris," says B. Chris Brewster, president of the ­California-based nonprofit United States Life­saving Association. "Essentially what Hunsucker is doing is human experimentation on an untested medical theory. It's reckless and negligent, and just unbelievably ­unethical."

Hunsucker's critics love to point out that he has no background in medicine. And that he has aligned himself with Dr. Henry Heimlich, the iconic inventor and namesake of the anti-choking maneuver, whose reputation has been under siege in recent years.

In a twisted family drama, 53-year-old former punk-rock musician Peter Heimlich of Atlanta, Georgia, has spent years working to discredit his world-famous father, alleging he conducted illicit human experiments on AIDS patients, and falsely claimed credit for several medical ­innovations.

Henry Heimlich, who is now 87 and resides in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, denies the allegations. "Dr. Heimlich has some unorthodox medical ideas that are out of the mainstream, and he's the first to admit they're unorthodox," says Bob Kraft, his spokesman. "But Peter wants to paint him as the great fraud of the 20th century when Dr. Heimlich has a long career of real achievement."

Henry Heimlich spent much of his career locking horns with the medical community, advocating his maneuver not only for choking but also as a first response for treating asthma attacks, heart attacks, cystic fibrosis and drowning.

"It makes no sense logically or medically or physiologically, and every expert in drowning has said that," says Dr. Robert Baratz, a Boston, Massachusetts-based primary care internist who serves as president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, a nonprofit agency that investigates and evaluates claims made for health products and services.

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