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?

Even after E&A dropped the Heimlich maneuver from its rescue protocols, Hunsucker dug in his heels. It was an unpopular decision that cost his company several clients, he says.

And why did he continue to promote it?

"Because we never had it not work," he says.

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.

It's a response that drives the medical community bonkers.

"We don't do medical research that way," Baratz says. "That's called 'It-is-because-I-say-it-is.' It violates the basic rules of medical ethics."

Today Hunsucker insists there is no controversy, calling it a dead issue. "Everybody in the industry knows we do this," he says.

Still, he becomes prickly when asked about his critics. "I'm not an MD; congratulations; so what?" he says. "I'm a PhD; I am trained in logical thought. I'm not stupid; I'm not hidebound; I can change. Come up with a logical argument."

He adds: "All the agencies that say, 'Don't do it,' have never asked me for our data." When the Press requested to see any and all unpublished data, Hunsucker said there was none.

A black-and-white photograph shows Henry Heimlich with his arm around John Hunsucker. It's a fitting picture: Heimlich is smiling and relaxed, seemingly gleeful to have found a follower, while Hunsucker wears the sober, circumspect expression of a proudly independent thinker who resists the notion that he is anyone's lapdog.

The undated snapshot appears on the voluminous Web site, maintained by Henry Heimlich's estranged son Peter Heimlich, who writes above it:

"Every major first aid and water safety organization considers the use of the Heimlich maneuver for treating near-drowning as useless and potentially deadly. It's [sic] use has been associated with dozens of serious injuries and the loss of life, including children. So why is Prof. John Hunsucker's Houston-area company NASCO Aquatics teaching lifeguards to perform the Heimlich maneuver on drowning victims?"

Peter Heimlich devotes just a portion of the Web site to Hunsucker and drowning issues. He employs a mix of primary documents, scientific studies, news reports and original writing to create a laundry list of allegations against his father, whom he grandly denounces on the site as a "quack," "crackpot," "humbug" and "one of history's most prolific — and destructive — medical charlatans."

For instance, Peter Heimlich claims that his father financed and organized "illegal offshore human experiments on both American and Third World patients, deliberately infecting them with malaria. Medical experts have compared this un­supervised, exploitative 'research' to Nazi concentration camp atrocities."

It's true that Henry Heimlich has long advocated the use of malariotherapy to treat AIDS victims, in which high fevers are induced to stimulate the patient's immune system. It's also true that many AIDS researchers and medical ethicists have condemned the practice, warning that deliberately giving patients malaria risks killing them.

But Henry Heimlich did nothing illegal, insists his spokesman, Bob Kraft. "There are no secret African experiments going on," Kraft says. "The experiments that were done in China were completely legal; they were done under Chinese government auspices; there was no need for U.S. governmental or regulatory approval."

Peter Heimlich also claims that his father was fired from his last hospital job in 1976, and that he falsely took credit for inventing several medical innovations, including the maneuver that made him famous.

Kraft denies these ­allegations.

(A disclosure: The Cleveland Scene, a sister paper of the Houston Press, published a story in 2004 regarding a former Heimlich associate. The associate sued the Scene, alleging libel; the case is pending.)

Like his father, Peter Heimlich has aggressively used the media to promote his research. Much of the original and most illuminating work on the subject has appeared in the alternative press, though reports have also run in national outlets such as The New Republic and ABC News.

"We didn't want anyone else to be hurt or killed by this quackery, so we brought the information to a number of oversight agencies," Peter Heimlich writes on his site. "Most failed to take action, so we went to the media."

Peter Heimlich plugs a book on the Web site that he is currently writing with his wife Karen, and claims that Hollywood agents have shown interest in developing his story into a movie. He is unapologetic about taking on his own dad, whom he has not seen for five years. "I enjoy my work," he says. "I'm proud of my work."

Henry Heimlich has declined all interview requests regarding his son Peter. "As far as he's concerned, it's a tragic personal matter," Kraft says.

Peter Heimlich also uses his Web site to slam his two siblings: Phil Heimlich, a career politician who served as a city council member and county commissioner in Cincinnati and is now running for U.S. Congress, and Janet Heimlich, an Austin-based freelance writer whose work last year was honored by the Houston Press Club.

Among other things, Peter Heimlich charges his brother and sister with lying to the media about his mental health.

"We don't fully understand Peter's motivation," Janet Heimlich says. "We've all accepted that this is what he's chosen to do."

Hunsucker, meanwhile, says he is aware of the Web site but dismisses it, saying many of the issues are outside his area of expertise. Still, he admits that some of Henry Heimlich's theories seem ­misguided.

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