Swimming in Controversy

The Heimlich maneuvers

Dr. John Hunsucker isn't a medical doctor – he's a professor emeritus of engineering and math at the University of Houston, where he's taught for three decades. Nevertheless, he's made saving lives his business. He won't even talk to reporters anymore unless they can offer proof of their own death-defying capabilities. "I'll talk to you if you can tell me how it's going to save a life," he repeated to this reporter no less than half a dozen times when he was in Austin earlier this month. Hunsucker's company, National Aquatic Safety Co., held its annual international conference and training school at the University of Texas Jan. 7-10. NASCO, which Hunsucker runs out of his home in Dickin­son, is a risk-management company that consults with water parks on matters of safety and runs the third-largest lifeguard-certification program for water parks in the U.S.

Hunsucker does have a specific reason to dislike reporters. Last October, a Houston Press cover story by Todd Spivak ("Fighting for Air: Drowning and the Heimlich Maneu­ver") recounted a bitter controversy in lifeguarding circles, with Hunsucker treading water in the center of it. NASCO's lifeguard-training program teaches the use of the Heimlich maneuver – or abdominal thrusts – on drowning victims. The logic is that the thrusts force water out of the lungs, clearing the way for air. Sounds reasonable, but a host of experts condemn the technique, arguing that, among other things, abdominal thrusts increase the risk of vomiting leading to aspiration of that vomit. Administering CPR immediately, they insist, remains the best way to save a life. Austin officials seem to agree; city of Austin lifeguards undergo Red Cross lifeguard training, and Schlit­ter­bahn New Braunfels lifeguards are trained by NASCO competitor Jeff Ellis & Associates. Neither the Red Cross nor Ellis advocates abdominal thrusts for drowning victims.

In our noninterview, Hunsucker defended his record. Since the company's inception in 1974, he says, only one life has been lost during a rescue attempt by a NASCO-trained lifeguard.

In an incestuous twist, the Houston Press might never have heard of the Heimlich maneuver controversy if it weren't for one Peter Heimlich, son of Henry Heimlich, for whom the technique is named. For years the younger Heimlich has aggressively and publicly criticized his father's work. It all began with a family disagreement, he says, refusing to elaborate. (The elder Heimlich is 88 and lives in Cincinnati.)

"My father's a celebrity doctor who has been the subject of hundreds of stories, so I started pulling old articles," Peter told me in an e-mail. "I quickly realized we'd turned up something serious, especially the 30-year promotion of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning rescue. Our research uncovered that my father fabricated case reports to promote his mad idea, which has been associated with the deaths of dozens of kids. I thought it was important to spread the word because I didn't want any more dead kids."

Henry Heimlich doesn't respond directly to his son, but his spokesman told the Houston Press that Peter's charges are false, describing the dispute as a "tragic family matter."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Heimlich maneuver, John Hunsucker

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