Thanks to his eponymous "maneuver," Dr. Henry Heimlich’s name is among the most iconic in the medical world. He sits on the advisory board of the animal-rights Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which named an award after him in 2005. But judging from a new broadcast of ABC’s 20/20, his public credibility — and PCRM’s — may be crumbling. With PCRM’s help, the apparently publicity-starved Heimlich has been promoting his namesake choking intervention as a rescue technique for drowning. ABC blew the whistle on this potentially deadly idea on Friday night, along with a few others in Heimlich’s doctor bag (including the unethical use of live malaria to treat AIDS patients). PCRM president Neal Barnard sided with the vegetarian Heimlich, and came out looking decidedly less than "responsible."
At the center of the 20/20 controversy is Heimlich’s son Peter, who has spent years researching what he calls his father’s "series of discredited, experimental, dubious medical theories which every medical expert says are either useless, dangerous, or crackpot." (Click here for Peter Heimlich’s investigative website.) PCRM promoted one of those ideas — using the Heimlich maneuver for drowning victims — in a Public Service Announcement, and in a 2000 press release that’s still available on the group’s website.
Here’s an excerpt from Friday night’s 20/20 transcript:
Henry Heimlich in a PCRM ad: "Remember this: Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is not effective when the lungs are flooded with water. The Heimlich Maneuver expels the water from the lungs."
ABC’s Brian Ross: "… an idea endorsed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which produced this commercial, and where Dr. Heimlich sits on the advisory board."
PCRM president Neal Barnard: "If I were pulled out of a swimming pool, and I were pulseless and not breathing, I would be very appreciative if somebody would take a couple of seconds and do a Heimlich to get the water out of my lungs."
Brian Ross: "But leading experts say the theory makes no sense. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, most drowning victims have little or no water in their lungs. And any delay in giving artificial respiration by doing the Heimlich maneuver first could cause brain damage and death. And the report’s author says the Heimlich maneuver itself can be dangerous on unconscious drowning victims."
Dr. Peter Rosen, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: "The pressure is being applied right under the rib cage, onto the liver. And it would be very, very easy — especially in a child — to tear the right lobe of the liver. And then the child would die of hemorrhage."
Neal Barnard’s cheerful support of this potentially deadly drowning intervention indicates that PCRM won’t sever its ties with the elder Heimlich any time soon. (For another indication, click here to watch PCRM advisory board member and vegan-diet hawker John McDougall praise some of Heimlich’s more questionable pursuits.) But that’s no surprise, since the only non-deceptive word in the name "Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine" is the short one in the middle.