Ursula: Would you know what to do if someone starts choking on food?

Jul 17, 2023, 4:17 PM

choking on food...

CPR training could save a life. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A four-year-old girl in Kennewick died recently after choking on a hotdog at Costco. The horror unfolded at a crowded food court and there were many people who saw her mother frantically trying to get help for her struggling daughter. Tragically, despite all the rescue attempts from EMTs and others, the girl died that afternoon, just days before her 5th birthday.

My heart breaks for the little girl and her family, those who tried to save her life, and those who witnessed her last breaths. I also shuddered as I read about the incident because it brought me back to the night of my youngest son’s 23rd birthday on June 16th.

Earlier in the week, my father had a massive stroke so we decided to just have a low-key dinner at an Irish pub in Seattle. My son was eating his corned beef and hash when he suddenly started gasping for air and had a concerned look on his face. He tried to gulp down some water but it ended up coming out of his nose. He continued to try to swallow or cough up his food, to no avail.

All I heard was a squeaky sound. As his eyes began watering, it was clear he was in trouble. My husband and our older son were in disbelief, almost paralyzed with shock. I yelled out that he was choking and jumped out of the booth and got behind him. I had never done the Heimlich maneuver before but I instinctually started giving him abdominal thrusts with my fists between his belly button and his rib cage.

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My mama bear strength took over me and with each thrust, I was practically lifting him off the ground. The entire restaurant was quiet. I could see other diners, watching in shock. The wait staff wasn’t moving. It felt surreal, but in my mind, I thought there was no way I was going to lose my son, on his birthday, on the same week I was likely going to lose my dad. Luckily, after about six abdominal thrusts, that corned beef finally came up and he could breathe again.

We were very fortunate that my son’s situation didn’t turn tragic. My older son and husband were upset with themselves that they initially went into shock. But I think a lot of people would react the same way. Would you know what to do if someone you’re dining with starts choking on food? If it isn’t a family member, would you step in and help? If you are eating by yourself and you start choking, would you know what actions to take to save yourself?

Red Cross CPR Updated Guidelines

According to the American Red Cross, if the person is able to cough forcefully, let them keep coughing because that could help the food come loose. But if the person can’t cough or talk, your quick action could be the difference between life and death. The Red Cross recommends giving five back blows first, by bending the person over at the waist to face the ground. While supporting them, you need to strike between their shoulder blades, using the heel of your hand. If that doesn’t work, then give five abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver.

Some other medical sources ONLY teach the abdominal thrust and the American Red Cross says it’s ok to go straight to the Heimlich if you haven’t properly learned the back blow technique. If you’re the only one there to help the person choking, do these things before you call 911. But if there are others around you, ask them to call 911 immediately. If YOU are the one who’s choking, you can give yourself abdominal thrusts by placing your own fist above your navel, grasping that fist with the other hand, bending over a hard surface like a chair, and shoving your fist inward and upward.

When I talked about my family’s scary incident on the Gee and Ursula Show Monday, many of our listeners shared their own harrowing stories about when they or their loved ones nearly choked to death. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least one child dies from choking on food every five days in the United States. Bottom line, it’s important to think about and practice these techniques before you have to use them in real life.

Listen to Ursula Reutin with her co-host on Gee Scott on the Gee & Ursula Show, weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Ursula: Would you know what to do if someone starts choking on food?