It happened in an instant. I was picking up my younger two girls from school on a Monday afternoon, and they were hungry.
On Saturday night, my girls had enjoyed a special activity: they had dyed Easter eggs with family friends, and I decided to bring several of the brightly-colored hardboiled eggs as an after school snack.
My two daughters and I began walking across the elementary school grounds towards my car. The ten-year-old held my hand, chatting about her day, and the six-year-old lagged a few feet behind us, carefully picking pieces of shell off her Easter egg.
As we began crossing the basketball court, I felt a small tapping. I turned. My six-year-old was struggling. She gestured to her throat, the universal sign for choking.
I waited two to three seconds to see if she could cough up the piece of food. Nothing happened. Not infrequently, my ten-year-old chokes on her food, sputtering for a moment before coughing/vomiting up the item, so I waited a few more seconds, expecting my six-year-old to do the same. But she was silent. She looked at me with wide eyes, clearly terrified. Within a millisecond, panic set in.
I threw down the snack bag, my purse and her backpack. I was already calculating how much time she could go without air, whether or not I should scream for someone to call 911, or whether I should first try the Heimlich.
I’m no stranger to the Heimlich. Twelve years ago, my husband choked on a strawberry while we were visiting my cousins in Arizona. It was terrifying, and for a few seconds, we all stared at him in shock. I’m only 4’11”, but I did the Heimlich hard enough to lift him off the ground, and the strawberry flew out of his mouth.
And five years ago, I was nagging my oldest daughter, then eight years old, to eat her dinner quickly or we would be late for her ballet class. I rushed her and rushed her as she sat on a barstool, nibbling her food, and she ended up choking on a huge bite of chicken apple sausage. When I realized what was happening, I ran behind her, lifted her out of her seat, and did the Heimlich. The chunk of hot dog flew out of her mouth onto the counter. I felt absolutely horrible for rushing her; she takes a certain glee in my guilt and still reminds me that it was my fault every time the incident comes up. She has never been able to eat chicken sausage since.
What I recalled from both of those long-ago incidents was that my husband and my daughter had been making sounds as they choked.
By contrast, my six-year-old was completely unable to make a sound. Not a gasp, not a cough. She could not move any air in either direction. Her face starting turning purple; water began streaming from her eyes and nose.
I clasped my hands together around her middle and compressed. Nothing, I did it a second time, lifting her tiny body in the air, her sneakers banging against my shins. On the third time that I thrusted my hands into her stomach, a hard, dry ball of egg yolk flew out of her mouth. I put her down and looked at her.
She was able to make a sound, trying to gasp, and a small wheeze came out. I did the Heimlich one more time, and a chunk of egg white flew out. She managed to whisper out the word “help” and then “mama.” I’ve always told my girls that if you are choking, you know you’re okay when you can say the words “Help, Mama,” because if you can talk, you can breathe.
Again she whispered “help” and “mama” and within another ten seconds, she was moving air pretty well.
All around us, children were playing and chatting and walking. No one had even noticed. The whole incident lasted maybe a minute. An instant.
It took my little one a few moments to feel steady enough to get up. I had also had brought slices of watermelon with me in the snack bag, and I fed her a few pieces of watermelon so that the juice would help her continue to clear her esophagus, even though it was her airway that had been blocked.
I buckled her into her car seat, nuzzling my face in her wild, curly hair, and suddenly, I felt weak with fear. What if she had been eating the egg at lunch, and no one had noticed her choking? What if she had been downstairs in my kitchen, and I had been upstairs? What if she had been walking home with another kid for a playdate, and the other mom didn't know how to do the Heimlich? Would she have been brain damaged by the time an ambulance arrived? God, my thoughts raced and raced.
She was overcome with exhaustion, and almost fell asleep in the car, which never happens after school. For the next few hours, she complained of bad pain in her throat from where the food had been lodged. She kept telling me she felt scared. But by bedtime, she was bouncing around in her footie pajamas, hounding me to let her read more and more.
In the middle of the night, I awoke, riddled with anxiety. How can I ever let her out of my sight again when she is eating? How can I bear the terror of parenting, the daily denial of how fragile life is? I felt a panic attack coming on and took slow deep breaths. I talked myself down. This was a fluke incident. We were lucky because I was there, but it is very unlikely to happen again.
Still, I have now performed the Heimlich maneuver on THREE of my immediate family members in the past twelve years. That is no insignificant number. Mostly, as I finally fell back asleep, I felt immensely grateful for Dr. Heimlich, for his lifesaving technique, and for the fact that I have received quality first-aid training at multiple points in my life. I learned how to do the Heimlich and CPR as part of my P.E. class when I was in middle school. I learned it again when I became a licensed foster/adoptive parent. And I learned it a third time when I was a Girl Scout troop leader.
I still feel anxious today, and I reminded my little one over and over to take small bites and chew her food well. My ten-year-old is also a bit freaked out after witnessing what happened, and she needed extra hugs and cuddles today. I think about the way our lives could have changed in an instant yesterday afternoon. Please, if you do not know how to do the Heimlich, take the time to learn it. You never know when it could save a life.
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