Rachel Humphrey was enjoying her long-awaited vacation in Tenerife with Chris Humphrey as well as their children.
‘We’d waited ages for a holiday after Covid and it was just perfect,’ recalls Rachel.
Their October all-inclusive hotel stay was chosen by the family. They were enjoying their breakfast at the hotel’s buffet.
Chris (47) was eating a plate with barbecue ribs. ‘He had a habit of often clearing his throat while eating,’ says Rachel.
‘So when he started clearing his throat I thought it was normal. But then he cleared it again — and again.’
Rachel saw that her husband was choked as he moved away from Rachel’s table.
As a nurse, she immediately tried the back-slap technique she’d been trained in — slapping Chris hard in the middle of his back to dislodge the food.
They had booked an October all-inclusive hotel stay and are now enjoying their meal from the buffet at the hotel. Chris (47) was enjoying barbecue ribs.
However, it didn’t help. ‘By now Chris was heaving, his eyes were bulging and his face was red, while his breathing changed to more of a squeak,’ says Rachel, 42.
While she admits to being able to keep her head up in crisis situations with patients, it was a different matter when her husband was looking at her scared.
The couple’s teenage sons, Dean and Ben, ‘were sitting there stunned, too — they were witnessing their father fighting for his life’.
Rachel was suddenly struck by a sudden sensation of a hand touching her shoulder.
‘Someone moved me out of the way and stepped in,’ she says. ‘It was a young waiter we recognised. He grabbed Chris, lifted him off the floor — despite Chris being twice his size — and started the Heimlich manoeuvre, giving three large shoves under his breastbone,’ says Rachel.
Something immediately flew from Chris’s mouth across the table. ‘He suddenly let out a huge gasp and breathed,’ she recalls. ‘Everyone around us gasped in relief.’
The waiter — who they later learned was called Jorge Perez Maestre — then simply patted agricultural engineer Chris on the back, asked if he was OK, and resumed his duties.
‘I sat there stunned, unable to eat, tears down my face,’ says Rachel. ‘Jorge had saved Chris’s life.’
‘Someone moved me out of the way and stepped in,’ she says. ‘It was a young waiter we recognised. He grabbed Chris, lifted him off the floor — despite Chris being twice his size — and started the Heimlich manoeuvre, giving three large shoves under his breastbone,’ says Rachel’
At least one child a month dies from choking in the UK, according to Dr Lynn Thomas, medical director at first aiders St John Ambulance — in 2019, there were 351 fatalities, among both children and adults, caused by choking.
‘But we don’t know fully how many people have choking episodes and don’t die,’ she adds.
The London Ambulance Service alone receives an average of five calls a day related to choking — with nearly 2,000 people a year in London calling an ambulance because of a choking incident.
‘A lot of this is preventable — if you know what to do you might not need to call an ambulance,’ says Dr Thomas.
As we swallow food, our lower throat muscles contract and push it into the food pipe.
Also, the vocal chords and an epiglottis (a flap of tissue that protects the airway from saliva, food or drink) help to keep it closed. Dr Jonathan Hoare, a consultant gastroenterologist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London, explains that as you start to swallow, ‘the epiglottis automatically closes off your airway and the food will go down the right way’.
However, swallowing involves complex coordination actions between 20 muscles as well as millions of nerves.
The process could go wrong for many reasons. Instead of the food reaching the airway, it can end up with the food.
‘People might be eating fast, taking too big a mouthful, talking at the same time, being distracted, or they’re drunk,’ says Dr Hoare.
In some cases, choking is related to a health condition affecting the nerves of muscles that co-ordinate swallowing — ‘for instance, if you’re developing Parkinson’s disease or motor neurone disease, or have had a stroke’, he adds. Sometimes you can just be lucky.
It’s also possible for people to believe they are choking, because food gets painfully stuck in their food pipe (gullet) — but they’re not technically choking as there is nothing blocking the airway.
‘It feels nasty,’ says Dr Hoare, adding that many people think this is choking ‘because there is a reflex to try and vomit it back up, which can be very uncomfortable’.
A cough is the body’s way of attempting to expel the food — the violent involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, the large dome-shaped sheet of muscle that divides the chest from the abdomen, generates air pressure upwards to dislodge the food.
If this doesn’t work and the person is still choking you can take immediate steps to assist, says St John Ambulance. These include the Heimlich manoeuvre, which was originally named for Dr Henry Heimlich (American doctor who developed abdominal thrusts). See box.
Although many people may hold back from attempting the Heimlich manoeuvre because they’re worried about causing damage, Dr Thomas says this should not be a deterrent. ‘A broken rib is rare and can be dealt with; choking is an emergency.’
This Heimlich maneuver can only be used by adults. However, there are other techniques that may work for children who choke.
With the Humphrey family’s emergency passed, a doctor was called to the hotel to examine Chris to check not only that there was no food still lodged, but also that the abdominal thrusts hadn’t broken any bones.
‘That man saved your life,’ he told Chris after examining him.
Jorge, from Holywell (North Wales), was found again by this grateful family before they moved to Tenerife. ‘He was so humble about what he’d done,’ recalls Rachel.
‘I can’t believe we nearly lost Chris just eating lunch on our dream holiday. This could all have ended differently.
‘Jorge really is a real-life hero who saved my husband’s life and means that my kids still have a dad. We will always be grateful.’
Discover the Heimlich Manoeuvre, which can save your life.
According to Dr Lynn Thomas, the best thing you can do for someone who is having trouble breathing is to get them to stop.
If this doesn’t work, then try back slaps, where you strike the person on the back with five sharp blows.
If this fails as well, then try the Heimlich manoeuvre — now called an abdominal thrust. First, check there is nothing in the person’s mouth by looking (do not insert your fingers or you may push any food further in).
Then, standing behind them, clench your fists to make one fist, and put it between the person’s belly button and their breast bone. Grab your hand tightly, and then thrust inwards upwards five times.
According to Dr Lynn Thomas, St John Ambulance’s, the best thing you can do if someone seems to be choking is to get them to cough up the obstruction. If this doesn’t work, then try back slaps, where you strike the person on the back with five sharp blows
If this fails, call 999 — then go back and administer five back blows, alternated with five abdominal thrusts, until help arrives.
Complete obstruction can lead to cardiac arrest. The person would have lost vital minutes of oxygen. For blood to continue to circulate, it is important to be able to do cardiopulmonary rescue (or CPR) immediately. Call 999 and put the call handler on speakerphone while waiting for help to arrive, advises Dr Thomas, ‘so they can direct you to properly do CPR’.
You should not do the Heimlich maneuver with an infant. ‘Children under one have a tiny chest and you can cause significant damage doing an abdominal thrust,’ says Dr Thomas. ‘So, in infants, lay them across your thighs, face down — with their face over the edge of your leg — before starting back blows. Obviously, children are smaller so do it more gently.’
If that hasn’t cleared the obstruction, turn the child over, face up on your thigh, with one hand underneath their back tilting them, so their head is tilted to the floor.
Two fingers are enough to do an abdominal thrust. Push upwards towards the chest with your other hand.
For older children: 1. Your child should be able to stand or kneel in front of you; Placing your thumb between your navel and the ribs, grab your fist. Grab your opposite hand, and draw inwards. Continue this five times. Make sure you don’t apply pressure to the lower ribcage, as this may cause damage.